On being an opportunistic shopper

walmart entrance

Daniel couldn't shop at Walmart... right?

By Daniel B.

It's Supermarket Week on AOA -- a whole week of posts about shopping for food. Because we all have to eat. Today, Daniel B on his own fussy supermarket circuit.

"The best grocery store" is a mythical creature. It simply does not exist. And it doesn't matter if you are in Albany, Austin, Berkeley or Manhattan.

So forget about the best for a moment. The sad reality is that we don't really even have a great grocery store in the region. Choosing between our available options is like splitting hairs. But even if we had a Wegmans, a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe's within an hour's drive of Albany, it would still pay to shop around.

If you really want to know how to save money on your groceries, while eating healthfully and sustainably, the answers aren't found in the price of a common basket of goods shopped against the leading area markets. The answer lies in knowing where to buy your staples, and then shopping opportunistically.

Walmart

First we need to address the elephant in the room. Her name is Walmart. I am all about voting with your pocketbook. And on some level your decision to shop there has to do with priorities. For better or for worse, Walmart is the mass market. And when they decided to carry Stoneyfield organic yogurt, it immediately expanded the organic dairy industry.

Personally, I want to cast some of my votes to the mass-market adoption of organics.

Walmart have great prices on organic salad greens, organic baby carrots and organic cereals. Their Great Value store brand produces surprisingly tender 100 percent whole grain pasta, and it's a great place to stock up on most national brand products. I do not buy their meat, but they do have some sustainable frozen seafood. If you know how to pick produce, theirs is pretty good, provided you mostly stick to the conventionally grown stuff that doesn't carry too high of a pesticide load, like onions or bananas. Also the Walmart milk is now all rBGH free, which I found to be very encouraging.

Bottom line: Walmart has good food, including organic produce, at low everyday prices. Buy national brands, selected fruits and vegetables, but skip the meat.

Price Chopper

It is milk, however, that gets me in the door at Price Chopper. Honestly, I like the flexibility of buying milk on my own schedule rather than relying on home delivery. The recent news regarding the FDA and antibiotics in milk was the final straw that made me move to organic milk for the entire family. Price Chopper is the best place to pick up pasteurized organic milk, but it's only available in gallons. Most organic milk available in the region is ultra-pasteurized, and I don't care for it.

A few of Price Chopper's private label products are also very good, like the Central Market Classics buckwheat honey, frozen French green beans, and the Price Chopper frozen sweet peas.

The thing about Price Chopper is that they know how to mark things down. Items on sale there can be cheaper than the identical items at Walmart, but not always. So it is great to get in there on a regular basis and see what's on special. One hundred percent whole grain sandwich breads made without high fructose corn syrup can often be found for under $3 a loaf. And when Polar seltzers go on sale for $3 or less per twelve pack, I take the opportunity to stock up on the stuff.

Bottom line: Price Chopper has the best supermarket milk in town. They also have great sales and some solid store brand products.

Hannaford

Hannaford gets me in the door with its Nature's Place rotisserie chickens. The birds seem to live a moderately good life. And the chicken is a delicious and easy meal that my family enjoys on occasion. Actually, the Nature's Place line of products as a whole offers great quality and value. I'm especially fond of the ice cream since it's produced from the milk of cows that haven't been treated with rBGH.

This is also the supermarket where I like to buy my happy eggs. They carry Giroux's, along with many other brands which offer several combinations and permutations of qualifiers that may or may not be important to you: free range, organic, vegetarian fed, humanely raised, etc. It is also where I can consistently find my wife's favorite hot sauce -- Texas Pete's -- and very large bags of frozen wild blueberries for my father-in-law.

Bottom line: Go to Hannaford for Nature's Place rotisserie chicken, happy eggs, and rBGH-free ice cream.

Honest Weight

When it comes to apples, I think it's really important to find ones that are either organic or grown without the routine use of pesticides. My family loves apples, so that brings me to the Honest Weight Food Co-op. And as expensive as that place is, the three-pound bags of organic apples are surprisingly reasonable. Organic corn is also important to me, and the coarse ground organic cornmeal from the bulk bins is a great deal and makes a perfectly good polenta.

There are a few other everyday values. Organic green peppers are less expensive at the co-op than they are elsewhere. Plus their organic steel cut oats in bulk are a steal compared to what Irish oats cost in a box on the shelf at Walmart.

But beyond these items and perhaps a few specialty and gourmet treats, I only buy things that are on sale and stock up on the items that will store well, like jars of organic applesauce, boxes of cereal, or bottles of juice.

Bottom line: There are a few great items that are reasonably priced. Get those, shop the sales, use a coupon and get out for less than $50.

Asian Supermarket

Tofu, which one might think would be a co-op staple, comes from the Asian Supermarket because holy cow it's cheap there. I'm very careful to look at the source of products that I buy at the local Asian grocers, but this tofu is made in California from non-GMO soybeans. And it's only about a dollar a brick, which is less than half the price that it's found elsewhere.

Bottom line: The Asian Supermarket is almost giving away non-GMO tofu. It is also a culinary wonderland for the adventurous.

Parivar

At least once a month I also try to stop into Parivar Spices on Central Ave for really cheap Indian and Pakistani spice blends and canned sweetened mango puree. With only a few dollars you could either buy one mango lassi or enough pulp to make at least a dozen of them. They also have exotic dried legumes and basmati rice at a fraction of what these items sell for at Walmart.

Bottom line: Walmart has nothing on Parivar when it comes to South Asian foods.

Filling in the gaps

All of this naturally leaves room to get the bulk of one's produce from a local farmers' market, or a CSA in season. It should also be noted that over the course of the year, I do periodically make it to a Trader Joe's, where I'll stock up on all my favorites. And I've just started going to Adventure in Food Trading for some fresh grass-fed beef and other gourmet goodies.

I do wish I made more frequent visits to the Pioneer Market in Troy for some sustainable deli meats and The Fresh Market for their rBGH-free sliced cheeses. But even I have my limits.

Engaging in this kind of grocery shopping isn't for everyone. It cuts into one's ability to plan for weekly meals. But there is no better way I know how to get the best stuff at the best prices.

Daniel B. is the proprietor of the Fussy Little Blog.

Supermarket Week:
+ Supermarket Showdown IV
+ Greulich's Market
+ Six things to check out at the Asian Supermarket
+ Shopping Target's new fresh-food offerings

Comments

Aldi?

Just for the record, organic milk is approximately twice the cost of regular milk. Do you really want to increase your milk bill by 100% at this time. At Price Chopper organic milk was about $3.70 per half gallon, while regular milk was about $1.80 in Glenmont, New York.

The best grocery store does exist, Daniel B., and you know it! It's called Publix.

I factor in my time and the price of gas in how much I'm willing to drive around town to get cheaper deals. However, it does pay to organize your errands so you do take advantage of sales.

As for the Honest Weight, for those of us who are member workers, it's obviously (somewhat) cheaper. Buying bulk is the real deal there. The sales seem to be cyclical so I wait for them to buy kefir, chocolate bars, and oher brand name foods.

I think Stewart's deserves a mention in regard to cheap, good, milkmilk. The milk club makes it even more worthwhille. We go through milk like crazy at my house. Roughly $3 a gallon, a free 1/2 gallon or half price full gallon after 10 purchases, antibiotic free and all from local farms. Although Stewart's hasn't officially pledged no rBGH is used in their milk, I found a blog posting that disclosed a conversation with a staff member at Stewart's dairy facility who stated that to his knowledge none of the 50 or so dairies they collect milk from uses hormones.

If you're a member work at the HWFC, which is really meant to be the point of a co-op, it's really affordable to shop there.

What about fresh fish, and I mean not defrosted frozen fillets, or just laying the fillets out on ice...really the only true fishmongers left in the area is the Asian Market...even the Cousins doesn't seem to carry much whole fish let alone fish steaks anymore.

There are some things in life worth paying for. People of the above mindset will never truly understand that. By being fussy over the minimal profit margins in locally grown food, you FAIL to support the local farmer. You can't have it both ways. Shopping at WalMart is your choice, but don't wonder why your favorite local farm drives right past your door to deliver it's goods to NYC.

We shop very little at commercial grocery stores any more--pet items, health and beauty products, paper products (seriously, you have to have toilet paper) some spices and sundries, and emergency food stuffs--that is about it.

We buy most everything we consume regularly at farmers markets. We are lucky to have three great choices within the capital region--bread, milk, cheese, eggs, flour, peanut butter. You name it and you can buy it locally from the producer!

@anonymous - I respectfully disagree and think one can have it both ways. By subscribing to a CSA and shopping the farmers' markets one can support local farmers. By shopping at Walmart and validating their decision to sell organic foods, you not only support the entire organic industry, but help to get organics into places where they have never been before.

Precious little of what I buy at Walmart has a direct negative financial impact on local farms. And as we speak, I am in intense negotiations with my wife in regards to the Flying Pigs Farm CSA.

But I do completely agree with you that there are things worth paying for. Thus my decision to spend a fortune on organic milk. I would gladly switch to Stewarts, but I could find no mention of their position on sub-therapeutic antibiotics on their website:

http://bit.ly/StewartsMilk

@Kizzi - If you have some kind of documentation on that, or a link to where you saw the discussion on growth hormones, I would be very interested in following up on it.

I still don't understand why people will pay double for "rBST" or "rBGH" free milk. The hormones in the milk will not have an affect on you, unless of course, you are part bovine. And if that is the case, you have muh bigger problems to deal with.

Put it in perspective: Women who are breastfeeding can still take most medications (after checking with their doctor first) and feed their baby safely. If DVM's (real doctors by the way) and researchers say that cow's milk is safe to drink after extensive testing, it's safe to consume.

I would worry less about the "organic" label on your carton, and more about if you are supporting local agriculture. Those farmers deserve your dollar too.

As for the first commenter asking about Aldi's, I wouldn't expect it from this author in the near future - they don't carry near enough organic food shipped in from California or China. Perhaps you can find someone to review grocery stores for the everyday, price-concious consumer?

@Rebecca: In 2008, we did a price comparison of discount items at Walmart, Price Chopper, Hannaford and Aldi -- Aldi came out on top.

@Daniel B, here is what I found: http://borenfamily.blogspot.com/search?q=stewarts+milk

I could swear on a stack of bibles that I have seen this information posted in Stewarts and read it other places (about antibiotics), but couldn't find anything supporting that, although the awards they have one in part test for absence of antibiotic particles in the milk as seen here

thanks Greg..didn't remember that.

and KatieEE...Aldi used to creep me out until I learned they are owned by the same German company that owns Trader Joe's. What a relief to this liberal--cause anything affiliated with Trader Joe's I KNOW has to be a-ok! ;-)

A-ha! I did find it explicitly stated on Stewarts' website that there are no antibiotics in their milk...though that doesn't necessarily mean the cows are not treated, but they do test each load of milk for any trace of antibiotic. Unsure what levels of antibiotic could be in a cow's system and have it not come through in the milk.

http://www.stewartsshops.com/ContentManager/index.cfm?Step=Display&ContentID=74

I still don't understand why people will pay double for "rBST" or "rBGH" free milk. The hormones in the milk will not have an affect on you, unless of course, you are part bovine.

The cows are 100% bovine, though. I can't speak for everyone, but personally, when I buy organic, horomone- and antibiotic-free milk I'm voting with my dollars to support certain farming practices over others.

We buy Stewart's Milk. And meat from the Nisky Co-op's phenomenal butcher. And Paper Goods from BJ's. And freeze our summer CSA to carry us through the majority of the winter months, with conventionally grown thrown in for good measure.

We shop around and buy organic or local whenever we can. But, I think something that we miss as foodies is that though the companies that own the big markets may or may not be local, the people they employ absolutely are. If our collective votes can change the way a company does business locally (or nationally, in the case of Wal-Mart organics), great. But sometimes, I don't want to take my food or my paper towels that seriously. Most of the time, I'm just trying to get home before my kids melt down in the car and to catch a sale in the meantime. Most of the time, I just want to feed my family as well as I can and be done.

I think the same holds true for the majority of families in the Capital Region and any evaluation of Supermarkets needs to run along those lines. Despite Daniel B's personal reasons for shopping in certain places, his Bottom Line summaries are accurate and worth considering. Put the 'fussiness' aside, read the post script, make your own decision, and call it a day.

I still consider Hannaford the best. Chopper is right around the corner from where I lived in Albany so i used to stop in there when i needed something urgently. I honestly consider Hannafords store brands to be better than Price Choppers, though most products from either are fairly inconsistent.

Hannaford on Central has the Asian market right there, and Oliver's for the best beer selection around, and 2 liquor stores!

The cows are 100% bovine, though. I can't speak for everyone, but personally, when I buy organic, hormone- and antibiotic-free milk I'm voting with my dollars to support certain farming practices over others. Thank you, B. You said exactly what I was about to.

We do 90% of our shopping at the Co-Op, through a farm CSA, and at Cardona's market. We've considered a meat CSA, but right now we don't have the freezer space so it's not a good option for us at this time.

We stock up on a lot of non-perishables (such as cereal and snack food) at trips to Trader Joe's (my in-laws live a mere few miles from a store, so we usually stock up on visits), and Stewart's is our milk "fallback" (when we don't buy from Cardona's or HWFC). I prefer to support Meadowbrook Farms for obvious reasons, but Stewart's is convenient, local, and ethical, and I can get behind that. If we drank more milk than we do, I would probably do home delivery, but we're limited mostly to coffee creamer (for me) and he has whole milk in his cereal (I use hemp or almond milk, as dairy and I only get along in small or cultured portions).

We rarely set foot in commercial grocery stores anymore. Occasionally to pick up a certain staple in a rush, but it's become the exception for us. We don't do Walmart at all, for anything, and haven't for years. If we need paper goods, cleaning supplies, toiletries, etc., we go to Target. Pet supplies are bought at Benson's or at Pet Supplies Plus, and we make similar choices on food ethics and local/ethical businesses for what our animals consume.

Having said all of that, my husband and I are very fortunate and blessed to be in an income bracket that allows us to shop ethically. We don't have kids, don't have a mortgage, and our combined income is above the national median. We're not as comfortable as we would like to be (we don't have a mortgage, for example, because we are not yet in a position to buy a house), but I am not too obtuse to realize that we are coming from a place of privilege when we make consumer decisions. This is not necessarily the right choice for everyone's family. I think Daniel outlines a good way for people who are in various income brackets and/or with various priorities to shop consciously.

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