I can remember when I lived in Texas, in an area where the only “major” grocery store was a Walmart, which had wiped out almost all the competition within a 10 mile radius. I couldn’t get all the way out to that walmart without a car, and because I was new to the area I couldn’t figure out the public transportation system. I was shopping for my groceries – literally – at a gas station. My daughter was an infant at the time and, because I was “smart,” I ordered her formula in bulk and had it shipped in. Me, I figured, I could just shop for my needs at the gas station… and through the local delivery joints.
Every week, it was some combination of Papa John’s, Jimmy John’s, and whatever I could scrounge up from the gas station. I ordered so often that, upon giving my number to the employee, they’d immediately know what my order was. I can even remember the point where a wave of embarrassment washed over me… and I simply started placing my orders online.
I can even recall the lowest of my low points, one weekend when I knew I wouldn’t be paid until the following Monday, had only about $10… and had to have something to eat in order to get by. I bought a gallon of Blue Bell ice cream, and rationed that out until pay day.
Yes, it’s no wonder that I’d gotten up to over 300lbs, right?
When I first started wanting to cook healthier, it came at the suggestion of my dear sorority sister (and bridesmaid!), Tashie (well, that’s what I call her), that we go to the store together. I didn’t have a car, and she knew I had Mini-me with me, so she offered to help us out. Yes. She’s that kind of awesome.
She was the one who put me onto the idea of eating and not using processed food. “My family doesn’t buy that shit. We use alllllllllllllll fresh vegetables. We don’t play that.”
“Uh, yeah, but I’own know how to cook all that.”
“That’s okay. Baby steps.”
I’d saved up all my money for this trip. I was going to buy everything I needed… and I did. I spent almost $150 on this one measly trip to the grocery store. And, as soon as we’d left, I’d asked her to stop by the Checker’s across the street so that I could get something to eat.
“Hell no – you just went to the grocery store. What are you buying this shit for?”
She didn’t even turn the corner in that direction. She’d also spent the entire ride home making it clear to me – there would be no fast food on my healthy living journey.
Well, alright, then.
We’d gotten home, and she helped me put the food away. We talked about what they ate like in her household, and it compelled me to do a lot – a lot – of thinking. Would I lead a household the same way her family did? Could I?
I ate a lot of raw meals, simply because I didn’t really know how to cook much of what I’d bought. Sure, I could par-fry some chicken thighs, but I couldn’t do much else, and it was obvious. Mini-me was always happy as long as she was with Mommy, and we suffered through most of those “struggle meals” together. The only thing I could really master early on was stir-fry. The right veggies, some ginger and sea salt? I was golden.
But eventually, the food runs out and you’ve got to go back to the store, right?
I’d text Tashie and ask if she could come back but, um, she has her own life and her own responsibilities. I didn’t own a car, and I was a thousand miles away from my family. How was I supposed to get to the grocery store?
I’d ran down the list of people I could call and ask to take me, but who could drive all the way out to where I was on such short notice? Who’s sitting around just waiting for me to ask them to run me somewhere? Furthermore, who wants to be that kind of a pain in the ass?
I’d eventually have to figure something out. After that moment with the Blue Bell Weekend, I’d decided that I would have to simply call a taxi cab to deliver me to and drop me off from the grocery store. Sure, it’d cut almost $20 out of my grocery budget, but I could not subsist on blue bell alone. I did that one time before I moved from Texas altogether. Clearly, I’d have to revisit that.
If I were going to become even partially self-sufficient, I’d have to call a cab to take me up the road to the nearest grocery store, and do my shopping… and that’s exactly what I did. I’d saved my money, and tried to buy as much as I could so that I wouldn’t have to make this trip often. Cabs were pricey, and I hated spending money.
All it took was spending one night alone, waiting for almost two hours for a cab to come take my daughter and I home, that I’d realized… I simply couldn’t go on like this. Depending on other people is unpredictable and unreliable, and I couldn’t entrust my (and my child’s!) safety with a cab company.
I had to figure out something. I needed my vegetables and I needed them fresh, just like Tashie said. I needed my… well, everything. I couldn’t wait.
One Wednesday, I paced around my kitchen wringing my hands, trying to debate whether I’d just give up and call someone – a friend, a cab, anyone – to help me do what I needed to do… but damn, I was dying to be independent. I’d been experiencing so much progress with my weight, that I didn’t want to go back to my old habits because it had become clear to me that those habits don’t work. I was working out regularly, eating better, and my little one and I were enjoying our new, more active lives. I needed to show myself that I could get this basic thing done on my own. And, just like that, it hit me.
I grabbed my workout clothes, a duffel bag, and Mini-me’s umbrella stroller. Got her dressed in her lightest clothes, and we put our shoes on together. Strapped her up, and headed out the door. I jogged her to the grocery store, broke down her stroller and put it inside my cart. It served as a polite reminder to not buy too much foolishness, because I couldn’t carry it home. You start looking at a gallon of ice cream a lot differently when you realize it represents almost 10lbs worth of weight you have to carry home. Big bags of chips and dips stop looking like “yum” and start looking like “unnecessary shoulder pain.”
I walked my sweaty, smelly behind through the store, did my shopping, and loaded up my cart. Buying only what I could carry often resulted in me buying just enough food to last for one week, and that’s exactly what I’d do. I’d ask the cashier to load my groceries into my duffel bag, load it across my shoulders, and walk/jog it home. I’ve been doing it that way ever since.
Victory, she is mine.
This is how I learned how to shop on a limited budget. I could only buy, literally, what I could carry. As Mini-me aged out of her little umbrella stroller, I saved up for a fancy pants jogging stroller, which was large enough for me to put one basket on top (where the drinks go) and one basket underneath where her seat rests. Same duffel bag, same weekly schedule. Even when I introduced the almost-hubby into our lives, he had to get with the same program. I don’t “drive” to buy my groceries. I jog it… and I do it weekly.
It obviously has its limitations. If you look at a map of food stamp usage across the US:
…and you start seeing a pattern.
If it’s difficult for you to get to where you need to go to get fresh produce easily, you’re probably not going to get fresh produce. If you’ve never known anyone to take a taxi cab to get from a grocery store, you’re probably not going to get to a grocery store.
And, really, let me tell you another little story. Brooklyn is it’s own little ball of grocery store confusion.
There aren’t any supermarkets – supermarkets, not bodegas, not corner store stands and not fruit markets – within at least a four-block radius of my daughter’s school. Tons of little fruit markets, though. Walk inside, and much of the fruit is cut – because the store’s workers have cut or pruned off the rotting parts – but the stores aren’t properly refrigerated, so there’s fruit going bad on the inside and looking fresh on the outside. There’s shelves and displays where, if you pick up a veggie, a cockroach starts running away.
That’s a quick way to be turned off from shopping at your local fruit market, and be turned onto buying from your nearest bodega… which doesn’t specialize in selling anything other than processed food and $4 boxes of 18-pack tampons. It is very easy, mind you, to grow up in an environment like this and think that veggies – the fresh kind that glisten in the light at a fancy pants grocery store – are a privilege of the elites, and not for people like you in your neighborhood.
…that is, unless you live in [what can be considered] the suburbs of Brooklyn, where you’ve got not only fresh produce in properly refrigerated places, but you’ve got them on almost every other corner! (And, with almost 27,000 people living in every square mile of the city, these stores can easily sit next door to each other and still survive.) But we’ve talked about this before.
This, however, is not unlike my mother’s home in Indiana, where there’s a supermarket across the street, half a mile away, .6 of a mile away, a Walmart “super center” next door to that, and a Whole Foods across the street from those. She also has a car to accommodate all of that driving… and shopping.
Our habits, our experiences… they neither form nor exist in a vacuum. Growing up in an area where the only veggie mart is full of cockroaches can result in you growing up on only processed food, and never “developing a taste for” vegetables. It can result in you never learning how to cook these things, and spend a considerable amount of time burning up your pots and pans. I was motivated by the fact that I’d already lost a considerable amount of weight, and wouldn’t have been able to continue on my journey without going to the lengths I did to keep my access. Who else would be that motivated to put that much effort into getting better access? Who would think to consider “how close is it to a grocery store?” as a factor in moving? If you’re on government assistance, can you even afford to think of as much?
Or, how about, if you are among the working poor, do you have time to walk to a grocery store? Do you even care enough to carry your groceries home? And, if you’re among the many people who’ve decided to accept processed food as the sole means of survival, what kind of message does that pass onto your kids? You might’ve chosen to accept that processed food is the way to do it, but your kids may simply never “develop a taste for” veggies. The issue quickly becomes cyclical.
I just… I think we need to consider what kinds of miracles we’re asking people to execute. Sometimes, healthy living simply isn’t just about the money, and our conversations about food justice and sustainability need to better reflect that.