Our VoiceHealth & Environment

Social Inequality For Sale at a Grocery Store (Maybe) Near You

Charlotte Williams • Jan 03, 2012

In a holiday “final-minute-before-closing” run to the local grocery store on December 31, I experienced a food justice eye-opener.

I rushed into a store while carrying a bag from a previous purchase, zooming right past a man stationed near the stacked lines of grocery carts. I only vaguely heard him saying, “Ms. Ms.,” as I was lost in trying to remember the items I came to purchase. I did finally heard a loud, “Ms!” I turned to see a young man of Asian descent signaling me to return to the African American man I had just rushed past.

I walked over, and he said, “You have to check your bag, Ms.,” and he attached a clothes a numbered close pin to my bag). I stopped in my tracks and rather indignantly said, “what?” Then it struck me—I had forgotten where I was and had forgotten the “rules” of the grocery store game.

I was not in a corporate grocery chain such as Albertsons, Jewel, Kroger, Piggly Wiggly, and certainly not a branch of the newly crowned urban food giant, Wal Mart. Noticeably absent from this local grocery store were the “greeters,” but then again I was accosted by the “check any bag from another store” checker/ greeter.  What a major contrast to my earlier shopping experience when I had accompanied my friend to a Whole Foods Market to pick up some hummus for a party.

The windows of the Whole Foods were unobstructed, it seemed, in order to entice consumers into the store. Every Whole Foods that I have ever shopped at, in fact, has had brightly lit aisles, handwritten signs, and a plethora of free samples, as well. Conversely low income community stores often have Plexiglas windows, are poorly maintained, offer degrading and hostile shopping experiences, and generally seem to “hide” products, employees, and customers from one another and city health inspectors.

Sadly, this shopping reality is shared by hundreds of thousands of low-income consumers in urban and rural settings.

Unlike many low income shoppers, I had a choice: I could have gone without the food items, or I could have traveled a bit further to one of the nicer big chain outlets. Low income consumers have a right to healthy, high quality food products sold in clean and inviting grocery stores. However, issues of access, affordability, and time create barriers to making food purchases at chain food stores.

Fixing this country’s broken food system is a priority of the larger food movement. As we usher in 2012, food justice—with its all-inclusive farm-to-plate focus—must not be minimized or sidestepped. Affordable, safe, healthy, and accessible food is a human right, after all.

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