Food Shopping, Hardest Job in the World

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“Hardest job in the world” sounds like an exaggeration, but maybe you will agree with me after you read this article.

Oh, the responsibility! When raising a family and maintaining yourself, the two big survival factors—now that bears, Indian attacks, and cholera epidemics are not problems—are the lifestyle twins; diet and activity. Turns out the things that are killing us are inactivity and too much/wrong food.

While activity levels are still in the zone of personal responsibility, it’s women who buy the majority of food, whether that food is consumed at home or in one of the zillions of food opportunities that confront us every day outside the home. We make energy-sapping food choices all day every day for ourselves and others, knowing somewhere in the back of our brains that these decisions are not trivial (or cheap), and that down the line there is hell to pay if we make too many wrong choices.

No help, no how! Being responsible to bring home the nitrate-free bacon is much more difficult than it needs to be because, it turns out, your interest in buying delicious, nutritious food doesn’t mesh with the interests of those who process, distribute, and sell you food.

If you look at food packaging, you see photos of things that aren’t inside, described by words that mean nothing—like the phrases “all natural” or “farm fresh.” If you inquire more closely, seeking out the black and white box that lists actual ingredients and percentages of fat, carbs, protein, and sodium, the mysteries deepen. Sugars are listed three separate times with slightly different names, and the calories seem reasonable enough until you realize that calories per serving defines a serving as something that might better be described as a taste.

If you aren’t impressed by “all natural” and look for “organic,” which actually does legally mean something, do you carry a list—on your smart phone perhaps—of which fruits and veggies are just as edible in their non-organic forms, and therefore don’t justify the price differential? How about a handy fish app reminding you what fish, caught from what location, and by what method are reasonably free of heavy metals and/or barely hovering at extinction status?

Then there’s the expiration date mash-up. Like me, you’ve probably grabbed a yogurt or bag of lettuce after looking at the date on the first one, only to discover when you get home that the one you got was a week older. The chronological order must have been messed with by some rude customer before I got there because no store management would be that sleazy.

Shop at the sumptuous prepared food counter in your grocery store and you’ll go without even the information available in the aisles. Hand-lettered ingredient cards with turmeric and potato misspelled are stuck into bowls of assorted stuff and nobody behind the counter knows the meaning of gluten-free.

Gotcha! So we learn to cope, to read between the lines, buy what we always buy because that’s what worked before, and fill that shopping cart.

But there’s one more obstacle before you take your eco-friendly sack of compromises home—the checkout counter. This is where everybody involved in the food business unites with the singular goal of parting you from as much money as possible in ways you can barely imagine.

You did bring your club card didn’t you? Otherwise you will inexplicably pay more for stuff than the club card swiper. You laboriously collected coupons, didn’t you? You might save some money there, but if you do much couponing you’ll be buying things you don’t want in order to use them. The idea here is that the high you get from getting something for nothing obscures the reality that you are trying to get a lift in your life from grocery shopping. Surely you deserve better than that!

You buy store brands except for your favorite chips or ice cream. You even consult those often-missing unit price comparison stickers that tell you how many square feet of plastic wrap you are getting compared to the competing box with its unit price sticker.

If you are super obsessive you might even be on the lookout for intra-product pricing gotchas—like having twelve-packs of Pepsi cost less per ounce than twenty-four-packs, just the opposite of what you’d think.

As a final kiss goodbye, your register tape tells you how much you “saved” using the club card, and has a lineup of coupons on the back for things totally unrelated to what you bought that day. How thoughtful.

Welcome home! It’s your stuff now—premade, frozen, start from scratch, all natural, imported or local. Do you get a round of applause when you bring in the bags and restock those empty shelves?

I’d love to believe that you do, but I’m guessing that more likely you have a nagging feeling that you got the groceries but lost a little of your zest for life in the process, that you coulda/shoulda done a better job, and that you have to do it all over again in a few days.

Then there’s that voice from the living room: “I hope you remembered to get the right cheese this time!”

Hardest job in the world. 


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