Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Banana Box

In the last decade or so, discount food stores have been appearing all over the country.  They take the kind of damaged and out-of-date goods that used to be thrown away or donated to soup kitchens* and sell them at a discount.  They are often called 'Banana Box' stores because the grocery stores ship stuff to them in banana boxes and they often put stuff out in those banana boxes rather than wasting time shelving them.

My parents shop at a couple of these stores near their house.  Most of the stuff in those stores is junk, but every so often you can get really good stuff that is obviously leftover from a high-end grocery store.  My parents, and their like-minded friends, have added all kinds of interesting, exotic, and premium foods to their diets as a result.  But finding these things is like getting lucky in a treasure hunt; the stores are obviously run by and for the kind of people who measure food in terms of quantity rather than quality.

However, I have discovered a far superior grade of discount store.  On the way back from visiting a friend for Fall Break, I stopped by Amazing Savings in Greenville.  She had taken me shopping there one time, and I had been impressed, but had not had time to really inspect the place.  This time, I seriously went shopping.  The more I looked, the more good stuff there was.  The shelves were packed with what I would call a lucky find at most discount stores.  For example, in the ones near my parents' house, you might get lucky and find a few $1 boxes of premium granola cereal.  I typically clean the store out when I find a good brand.  Here, there were shelves full of them.  I got a about half a dozen boxes and did not affect their stock that much.

The store is specifically run to be a place that packs healthy, specialty, and exotic food.  For example, they identify gluten-free food and put it in a special section.  They even have their own store-label foods like granola and dried fruit and steel-cut oats, packed in zipper bags with simple labels.  Presumably they get them from local farmers.  I have been idly munching on a 20 ounce bag of their 'vanilla macaroon' granola as I write this, and it is disappearing at an alarming rate.

I started off with a basket, but moved up to a shopping cart once I saw the 3-for-a-dollar bags of beans.  I had to stop myself from getting too much, and limited myself to one example of each thing that looked good, to test them out.  I basically had the attitude that I was going grocery shopping for the next couple of months, and also conducting a sample to figure out which foods and brands were good.  The cashier seemed surprised to see someone buying so much stuff.  I was surprised that more people were not doing the same.  You could easily use that place as your primary grocery store, and cut your grocery bill in half while dramatically boosting quality.

I think that most people are limited by their plans, goals, habits, and routines.  They make a list to go grocery shopping, and go to a store that is guaranteed to have everything on that list.  The few customers at discount stores go in with the attitude of looking for something specific that the store is likely to have, or with the idea that they are finding a treat to supplement their diet.  It takes a rare sort of person to be willing to adjust diet plans based on what the store happens to have.  But really, the attitude should not be that rare.  Our forager ancestors went out looking for food and ate whatever was available.

I spent about $60 for a staggering amount of food.  I mean that literally; I was almost staggering as I carried it out.  The cashier offered to pack my purchase in banana boxes rather than grocery bags, and I accepted.  She was actually quite good at packing the boxes efficiently, and they ended up being a lot easier to carry than a big pile of bagged groceries.

There is now a banana box full of food perched above my head as I write this. ( My desk in my office at school is one of those tall standalone units that incorporates shelves above the desk.)   It is packed with various kinds of cereal, granola, dried fruit, crackers, snack bars, and exotic microwave meals.  This is in addition to the stuff I pulled out and put in my bottom drawer for easy access.  The pantries in my apartment are also packed with food.

The store is too far away to go to on a regular basis.  The 50-mile round trip would cost me over $10 in gas and car depreciation, which would erase any savings from trips where I did not fill up the shopping cart.  I can, however, get in the habit of making the small detour there when I visit my parents.  They also have another branch in a small town about 8 miles from my apartment.  Hopefully that one is just as good.

*Yes, this is bad for the soup kitchens.  When the economy gets more efficient, there are often losers.  But the gains to the workers and customers of these stores are bigger than the losses to the soup kitchens, and the existence of these stores can keep people out of the soup kitchens.

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