Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Guilt while shopping

We often see the ease with which we can get food as a major victory of civilization. It is astounding, though, how complicated  buying food still is.

In a Facebook discussion about the possible tear-down of the Eddie's grocery store in Mount Vernon Baltimore's immigrant journalist turned social historian and documenter of Baltimore's past racial and class discrimination, Antero Pietila confessed that he often shops at the Aldi on Baltimore National Pike out in the County. That surprise me, although, on occasion, I shop there as well. I responded  that the German discounter exploits its employees and depresses the prices of its vendors. Which allows the low prices which lure people to shop there and which make me feel guilty. The food at Aldi isn't local and the meat is probably from some kind of industrial ag empire. Occasionally I grab some item that says "Deutsche K├╝che" for nostalgia.
Catonsville Aldi: 10,000 sf are enough to shake up the
competition

To compensate for spending money at Aldi (or Trader Joe's, owned by the same group), I shop sometimes at the Lexington Market during lunch break. On the weekend I try to go to a farmers market to buy bread, tomatoes and local cucumbers, everything about twice as much as it would cost at Giant, the Baltimore local baseline grocer.

But Giant hasn't been local for quite some time either since it is part of the Dutch grocery giant Ahold. Very possibly the strawberries, tomatoes and pork chops for sale at the nearby Giant come from the same source as the ones at Aldi. Who knows where Whole Foods will get their food after being owned by Amazon. Most of packaged items still don't tell us the place of origin.

There are also some good breads at the Waverly Market and at Atwaters. Bakers and even butchers, once commonplace in Baltimore, experience some kind of renaissance. There is excellent meat at Parts and Labor, but I can't afford it. It feels like one needs to take out a mortgage to buy there. Besides driving all over the region for food is certainly not environmentally friendly. Guilt again.
Food is political: O'Malley and Cummings in front of
Catonsville Atwater's promoting minimum wage increase (2014)
“While new supermarkets are not the only way to eliminate food deserts, the presence of a supermarket has a large impact on food access. Nationally, in 2013, 63 percent of all dollars for food purchased for home consumption were spent at supermarkets.” (CLF Report)
Back when I lived in the heart of the Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt shopping was less complicated and not fraught with thoughts about what would be good, bad or outright sinful. I walked to the Saturday farmer's market, to the local grocer Nanz, to the baker and the butcher simply because these were my choices without getting into a car. There was no point in getting into a car to do distant shopping except when it was time to replace the big cases of soda, mineral water and beer to replace the empty glass bottles with full ones. Driving would simply get you into another neighborhood food eco system that would look much like my own. Today, my 94 year old father walks from his Stuttgart retirement home to a modern Edeka store located below an apartment building next to a subway station. With 19,000 squarefeet it is large by local standards and small by ours. It offers anything one could want, from flowers to wine and from fish to exotic salami. Strip shopping center grocery stores with huge parking lots in front are rare in German cities and many people still walk to their stores within their neighborhood. Even bigger urban stores are part of the urban fabric like Baltimore's Whole Foods in Harbor East, with parking somewhere tucked into a structure. Or they look like Eddie's.
5,000 sf of food items

I also walk from my office to buy lunch and some cheeses and meats at Trinacria because it is such a wonderful throwback to the old world stores. Additionally, Trinacria has a great meat and cheese selection and many really good, very cheap wines. There are "real people" behind the counter who have been there for years and they know my name and I know their's. This is nice and makes me feel good, just as supporting a local business while not spending a fortune on quality food; who can beat that?

This gets us back to the beginning. Eddies is for the residents of Mount Vernon quite what my Nanz in Bad Cannstatt was for me when I lived there: part of the neighborhood eco-system. Not cutting edge and not the cheapest, but one can walk there and always find most what is needed. Why shop in a 100,000 sf Wegmanns 20 miles away when one can walk to the 5000sf Eddie's, meet some neighbors in the process, chat with the longtime employees there and potentially find locally grown produce?

I suppose it is what makes America great that people with cars and enough money can chose between Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, Giant, Safeway, Superfresh, Shoppers and soon Sprouts when it comes to buying milk, butter eggs and oranges. That food has become so cheap that farmers can't exist on making it, that strawberries are available year round and that a whole rotisserie chicken costs only $4.99. But it is also very American that a third of the City's residents can't walk to a grocery at all or lives in a food desert. Considering all that, it seems like a bad idea to demolish Eddie's, even before one even considers historic preservation.
Suburban food shopping: Wegmans at Hunt Valley

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Mapping Baltimore City's Food Environment (2015)

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