Our Changing Grocery Store

We live in a food wonderland, you probably realize. We have our Bellevue Farmers Market six months a year, plenty of grocery and food specialty stores in spitting distance, and restaurants and food trucks galore. And surely the national trend of young Americans leaving desk jobs to farm (usually in environmentally-aware ways) includes a load of Washington representatives. How spoiled are we? Even my oldest daughter, when she tires of the food (and lack of awesome vegetables) at her sorority, catches a bus with a friend and hits the prepared-food offerings at the nearest PCC.

But all our spoiledness didn't stop me from wishing our area had a Heinen's. I'm not from Cleveland, but reading Grocery: the Buying and Selling of Food in America, with its especial focus on how that family-owned store changed over the decades, inspired me to look online at the area. Imagine: good food and a good baseball team!


If you're interested in food (and why would you be reading this blog if you weren't?) and our food system, this is a fun and fascinating read. The nutritional info may be familiar, but it's a good reminder. I suffered familiar pangs of if-I-had-it-all-to-do-over-again when Ruhlman talked about "stripped carbs" and breakfast cereal. 2018 may be the year the Dudleys finally part ways with Cheerios. And watch out for the sugar levels in granola bars! I picked a fancy one up at a local coffee shop to read the label and almost dropped it in alarm when I saw how many grams of sugar it contained. Yikes. It made the Kashi ones I'd bought with a coupon look like kale bars.

There were other interesting bits in the book, as in:

  • Americans consume 50% of their calories through snacking(!).
  • Only 58% of American dinners require actual cooking. The others involve "assembling" purchased, prepared elements, or reheating fully-prepared foods.
  • In 1975, the typical grocery store had fewer than 9000 items. Now they offer 45,000. And that isn't 36,000 new kinds of fruits and vegetables. It's processed products and prepared foods.
  • "When you choose a non-GMO-verified product, it's not necessarily any better for you than a GMO product, but it is a vote for better agricultural practices."
  • When it comes to choosing unprepared, healthier food options, like fruits and vegetables, instead of processed foods, "We can spend our money here or we can spend it at the drugstore [on medicines]." That is, we either put better food into our bodies, or we pay to fix those bodies later, after the cumulative damage is done.

Ruhlman did spend some time exploding grocery-store myths which I had read in other places. For example, the refrigerated cases are in the back, not to lure you through the entire store, but because refrigerated cases take a lot of space and loading, and it's most convenient to put that at the back where the trucks can pull up and where they won't block everything. And most grocery stores don't, in fact, play slow music so you'll spend lots of time there. They play whatever music the employees happen to have chosen. (I've personally found that the thing that clogs up grocery store aisles the most, and adds to the time I spend shopping, is how many elderly shoppers and/or parents with the giant plastic race-car carts are in the store that day.)

Even though grocery stores make their highest margins in the produce department, they carry all the crap because they don't want shoppers being forced to go elsewhere to find what they're looking for. And the steaming, buffet offerings of prepared foods are not big moneymakers, but it's what people want more and more--someone else to do the cooking for them.

The atrium of Heinen's Downtown Cleveland store - given over to prepared food dining

The atrium of Heinen's Downtown Cleveland store - given over to prepared food dining

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, make the effort to do your own cooking, as much as possible. It's healthier--you choose the ingredients and know exactly what is and is not in it--and cheaper and brings the family together. I was pleased someone interviewed for the book quoted the same diet plan I think will fix the world:

Easy. You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It's short, and it's simple. Here's my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That's it. Eat anything you want--just as long as you're willing to cook it yourself.

Of course, given my family's obsession with The Great British Baking Show and our love for baking, this diet plan won't work the same wonders as it might in your house. But that's what our Sugar-Free January is for...