Thursday, June 30, 2011

Grocery Store Adventure!

one of the main reasons we began this TUFsperiment was to become more aware food consumers--more simply, better grocery shoppers.  taking steps to produce some of our own food is good progress--pilfering the neighbor's garden, the daily egg, dreaming of our own vegetable patch-- but grocery shopping will always be a major part of our food consumption. so i'm in the market for a non-big box grocery store.  the saturday farmer's market is awesome, but it's not saturday in the middle of the week!

another factor: non-big-box grocery stores are not cheap.  that is to say, big-box grocery stores ARE cheap, but for all the wrong reasons.  i expect to pay more for ethically- and sustainably-produced food, because the production costs are not masked by mass factory food practices.  i also find myself spending SO much money anyway on any given big-box run, and i realize that i rarely check prices on anything....i just fill up my cart, wince at the check out line and assume that i've gotten the everyday low price on everything.  that's not being a very conscious consumer!

so i decided to scope out a non-big-box grocery store, and i decided to set a reasonable limit and stick to it: $150, calculator out, every item in the cart accounted for.  i was going to try to do a 'normal' kind of big box grocery run at a non-big box 'fancy' store for $150.  hypothesis: i can get way more than i think at the non-big-box for a reasonable about of cash.

procedure: i headed straight for Wheatsville Food Co-op, but the parking lot was full.  undaunted, i carried on down guadalupe in search of The Natural Grocer, a small store i had noticed before but hadn't ever really thought about.  its full name continues, " Vitamin Cottage," which i always thought was strange.   but there were parking spaces, so i went for it.

i always notice the smell of places first thing, and the natural grocer had the smell of a fancy grocery store...i always imagine this particular scent to be a combination of wheat grass and bulk grain and dirt, and it's distinctive to non-big-box fancy schmancy grocery stores.  i kind of like it, but it smells expensive.  i selected a wheeliebasket, got out my calculator and began exploring.

shortly, a casually-official looking gentleman approached me and asked if i was finding everything all right, and had i ever been here before?  i said no, this was my first run at the natural grocer, and that i was getting my bearings before the real shopping began.  he said he was Robert, the general manager, from denver!  he was here to check out the newish austin store, and he asked  if i had any questions about anything.  i said, how much of your produce is locally-sourced?  he said that since the natural grocers by vitamin cottage was based in denver, they worked with many farmers and artisens in the denver area and from around colorado.  but he realizes that people in austin really like to support their local community, and that he was actively looking to work with local growers.  i thought that was a pretty decent answer, and robert seemed like a nice fellow.  i said, what's the deal with 'by vitamin cottage?' he explained that they had started as a natural vitamin and supplement outfit, but that the business really started growing when they started selling organic/natural groceries.  he said the natural grocers took pride in being 100% organic.  (i have some questions about the systems that label things as 'organic,' but that bears some more research.) at any rate, he seemed sincere.

we spoke for a bit about the fact that food that is ethical and sustainable is more expensive than mass-produced food, and he pointed out the fact that the grocery store had no fancy displays or deli/meat counters or anything like that, and this was in an effort to keep prices lower.  he also showed me that there were a lot of different items on specials or sales in the hopes of offsetting the higher price of natural/sustainable/ethical foods.  i explained my $150 experiment, and he said he would be checking up on me over the course of my grocery shopping to see how the store was holding up to my expectations and budget.  i was impressed that he seemed genuinely interested in my experience (and experiment!).

i acquired the following items (all organically grown/produced, according to robert):
lettuce/spinach/red cabbage/broccoli (colorado)
2 tomatoes (from gonzales tx!)
onion/garlic/red potatoes (colorado)
avocado/lemon/lime (?)
cantaloupe (colorado?)
fresh mozzerella cheez
lambchops/sirloin steaks/chicken breasts/ground buffalo/pork chops (meat = VERY EXPENSIVE for good reason)
frozen broccoli/peas
canned green beans
bottled juice (2 lemonades!)
sliced provelone (horizon farms)
salsa (local)
chips (garden of eaten or whatever)
pickels (bubbies?)
pasta sauce

for just under $147.  i was impressed!  this represented a significant grocery run for a very reasonable amount of cash at the non-big-box-all-fancy-natural grocery store.  hypothesis, first trial: confirmed!

over the course of my rounds, robert and the other store employees did check on me and were extremely helpful. i ended up chatting with them for a little while, and found i could have a source of FREE organic vegetable odds and ends for guinea pigs and chickens--all i had to do was call!  at check out they boxed up all my groceries (they don't use plastic or paper bags--just left over boxes) and even gave me a free re-useable grocery bag.  i kind of felt like a celebrity or something, actually.  it was very pleasant.

at any rate, my grocery store adventure at The Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage was educational and validating.  just the act of keeping a close running total on the contents of my basket was enlightening, and discovering i could do a real grocery run at an expensive smelling store for a reasonable amount of cash was encouraging.  plus everybody was super nice and i got free stuff out of it.  so the moral of this story is: i will probably go back there! 

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