Love this article! It just goes to show that people will buy healthier food if they have access to it, both geographically and financially. Here’s something that stuck out to me: “Amy Sahalu is waiting in line to pay for some of Harsh’s vegetables. She grew up in Ethiopia, and she comes here [farmer’s market] partly because it feels a little bit like open-air markets back home. There’s only one drawback: “A little bit expensive here,” she says. “But it tastes good for me.” via On the Farmers Market Frontier, It’s Not Just About Profit : The Salt : NPR.
This line reminded me of my time living in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota and an unspoken kinship I had with my fellow bus-route grocery shoppers.
Seward is an interesting place – part working class, part biker, part gentrified yuppie, part college student, and part Somali and Ethiopian immigrants. When I lived in Seward there were very few viable options for grocery shopping if you were not fortunate enough to own a car: an upscale and independently owned co-op with fresh produce that was outside of financial reality for four of the five communities I mentioned, but was across the street from the largest housing complexes; a Somali grocery store that carried primarily dry and packaged food; a Holiday gas station/convenience store that carried packaged food, junk food, and some staples like milk, eggs, and sugar at inflated prices; a 15 minute bus ride to a grocery store on a route that only ran every 30 minutes on weekdays (don’t get me started on weekends); or a 10 minute light rail ride with 5-10 minutes of walking on each side to get to the closest farmer’s market (this option required buying the rest of your groceries from Target or CVS).
Those that could afford to shop at the co-op across the street generally drove there in their cars. Of those of us who do not drive, the most determined walked the mere 5 blocks to the bus stop where we would catch the #7 Southbound bus. In my experience, this was the fastest way to get the most groceries in the fewest number of trips. Given the infrequency of the bus route, we all timed our departures hoping to not have to be outside for long (especially in sub-zero temperatures). Joining me were generally 6 or 7 parties, mostly Somali women, and the majority with children. After the 15 minute bus ride, we would exit the bus about two blocks north of our grocery store.
While we generally did not speak to each other, we shared similar tactics and experiences as bus-route grocery shoppers. In my mind, I imagine an unspoken kinship with these women and think of them often. Here are some of those shared tactics and experiences:
Only buy what you can carry home. Never take a cart and limit yourself to what fits into one basket. If the basket starts to get heavy in the store, you know it will be even more difficult to carry on the walk home. Don’t buy canned food or liquids, large quantities, flour/sugar, or anything that will spoil and/or melt (this is the one thing that makes bus-route grocery shopping easier in the winter than in the summer). Know what products will get demolished on the ride home and avoid them so as to not waste money. Learn how to pack a cloth bag to protect your produce with cardboard box barricades, and learn how much weight those bags can hold before they break.
In the winter especially, know how to time your grocery shopping according to the 30 minute between buses, slowing down just enough to not have to wait outside in the bitter temperatures for more than a few minutes. Gauge how many cashiers are on duty and how many people are waiting in line, and budget 4-8 minutes to get through the line and to the bus stop across the parking lot. Luckily, the bus stop is closer going Northbound than it is on the Southbound route so the walk home will be slightly shorter. Don’t underestimate the time it will take to get through the line. If you do, you can either go outside and freeze, or sit on the benches in the entry way and freeze a little less. On days when you have a lot on your list, run through the grocery store, speed through the checkout line, and know that you might still get to the bus stop just in time to see it drive away. When this happens, go inside the shelter to dodge the wind, huddle near the one heat lamp, and wait the 30 minutes until the next bus.
Nothing builds kinship more than running to a bus with a group of women, arms full of groceries, only to see the bus pull away from the stop. Luckily, more bodies in the bus stop is better than fewer. On one such trips, I heard someone say there was a severe cold weather advisory, and officials were warning people not to be outside for more than 5 minutes at a time. 30 minutes later we boarded the bus.
While it sounds too exaggerated to be true, sadly it’s not. I remember one such trip in which I actually feared for my safety. I was two blocks into my walk home from the bus stop with groceries in hand. Stopping every few feet to sit down to keep myself from fainting, I remembered a news article I had recently read about a man who had frozen to the sidewalk and later died (yes, seriously). When I finally made it to my controlled-access doorway, my hands were frozen around the handles of my grocery bags and it had taken me more than 20 minutes to walk the five blocks. After managing to get one free, I realized it was still too numb to feel my keys and waited outside until another resident walked up 5 minutes later and let me in. As extreme as it sounds, I know I’m not the only one who has had this experience bus-route grocery shopping in Minnesota.
If everything goes well and you time your trip perfectly, it might only take 1.5 or 2 hours from start to finish. It’s more likely, however, to take 2-3 hours. When you get home, you have enough food to last for 2 or 3 days – more if you’re single, less if you have a family. Next comes a trip to the convenience store for all those heavy items you did not get – milk, flour, and canned goods.
Especially in bad weather, bus-route grocery shopping is limited to the healthy and able-bodied. In reality, more likely is a trip to the convenience store for a frozen pizza or box of macaroni and cheese at inflated prices. Those living in food deserts often pay high prices for junk food at convenience stores because they are hungry and cannot afford 2 hours every other day to get to the grocery store, nor can they afford a taxi to take them there. Like this article shows, I think many would rather spend the $5 they spent on mac and cheese at a farmer’s market where they can get fresh produce, even if it means paying a little more than at the grocery store.