You may not know this, but I used to work as a cashier in a grocery store in the 1990s.
I met a number of people who received WIC and/or food stamps at my first grocery store, where I worked for two years. Some of these customers I got to know very well because they bought small orders and came in two to three times a week. It was clear that most of them were embarrassed to be buying food with assistance. Some came in with a chip on their shoulder, expecting to be criticized, whether by other customers or the cashiers checking them out, I'm not sure.
I treated them like any other customer, often calling them by name. Why wouldn't I? It's good business to get to know your customers and it was a small enough store that I could learn many of their names.
The woman (and by and large, it was they who were buying) clearly weren't used to being treated that way. Once we were better acquainted, some told me that. They came to our smaller store because the people were nicer and it was close enough to walk. It was evident they were used to being treated as second-class customers somewhere, which made me upset on their behalf.
Sometimes I wondered why they picked the items they did, though I never criticized. The items they bought, almost universally, were cheap and/or on sale, were filling and often non-perishable, except for WIC items such as milk and cheese.
A couple of the other customers occasionally commented to me about a prior customer's choices (whether purchased with food stamps or not). I either changed the subject or politely ignored those comments from the busybodies and got on with my job, rather than telling them to mind their own business.
Fruit and vegetables my customers bought with food stamps were almost always canned. I didn't connect that 20 years ago, when I started working at the first store, to the fact that fresh fruits and vegetables are almost always expensive. I did clue in, eventually, but I didn't know what possibly could be done about it. I knew fresh produce was more expensive, and some of these ladies had three or four kids to feed.
Let's go forward 20 years. A few articles and blog posts I've recently come across are giving me ideas of what could have been done back then and should be done now.
The most touching of the articles was the most personal; it was by Brooke McKay, who documented a trip to the grocery store with a woman who lives in crisis housing within the homeless shelter at which Brooke volunteers. Brooke gave Tori $50 (name changed for privacy purposes), though actually they spent more because she didn't want Tori to have to take any of the food back. She was surprised that one of the items Tori picked was an $11 bag of apples. The trip broke through the assumptions people often make about the homeless and those on food stamps.
The comments section also is rather enlightening. I will admit that I had a few tears in my eyes reading the blog and comments. (“There but for the grace of God go I.”)
A big part of why produce seems to be so outrageously expensive appears to be food waste.
According to a 2013 NPR (National Public Radio) blog post I read, Doug Rauch, formerly Trader Joe's president, planned to use edible produce past its sell-by date in prepared food that will be cheap in his supermarket-restaurant hybrid that features food that other stores would have thrown out. The Daily Table market will be in Dorchester, Mass. It was scheduled to open this year. I've been searching for half an hour and still can't figure out whether or not it's opened yet.
It's mentioned in other articles, too, including this one 4 Restuarants Rethink Food Waste, on www.sustainableamerica.org's blog. The post offers some fabulous ideas, as does another on that site, called Ugly Produce Can Be a Beautiful Thing. One of the points noted is that at every level, ugly produce is wasted.
In a quest to reduce waste, grocery chains in the U.K., such as Tesco, Waitboro, and Sainsbury's Food Rescue embrace the sale of these fruits and veggies at discounted prices. In Europe, it's Ugly Fruits leading the way. Intermarché in France also is promoting the benefits of ugly produce ... and a 30 percent discount, according to a grist.org article. French shoppers are gobbling them up.
Ugly Produce Can Be a Beautiful Thing also commented that the U.S., Greenling, which delivers groceries in Texas featuring local food and organic produce, "sells 'seconds' that have slight physical defects" while another delivery service, "Fresh Direct," based in Long Island City, Queens, rates its produce from one to five stars and customers can choose their grade, either taking a chance on one-star produce, which can be inconsistent to the perfect five-star produce. Home delivery is available in some areas; check the list. Out west, Grocery Outlet "sells closeouts and overruns, including produce."
If you want to know more, here are additional sources I found interesting:
- Modern Farmer, Food Waste: The Next Food Revolution
- Sustainable America's white paper, Increasing Food Availability to Ensure a Resilient Food Future for America