Whole Foods vs. Super Walmart: The Highs and Lows of Grocery Shopping

After a couple of months of nonstop Super Walmart, I had enough. I decided to take a field trip for the day while the kids were in school just to go to Whole Foods and stock up. You would not believe how thrilling this was for me, and I was a bit giddy with anticipation.
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My family and I made a big move this year from the provincial and quaint charm of New England to the high plains and big sky of rural Western Nebraska. It is different. The cultural and geographic changes between the East or West Coast and the Midwest can feel even more dramatic than moving to Europe at times. I have been asked repeatedly to write a series sharing our experiences.

My story today revolves around the modern-day process of finding daily sustenance, i.e., grocery shopping. As a semi-health nut mother of four, I serve lots of fresh fruits and veggies and prefer to spontaneously cook whatever dinner idea strikes my whim on a particular day over meticulous meal planning. As a result, it seems I am in the grocery store for one thing or another all the time.

Over the years of raising kids past the toddler nightmare days of sprinting through the aisles before the impending meltdown, going to the grocery store has now become pleasantly therapeutic. Those moments of my week of prepackaged hunter-gathering represents a treasured slice of life that has become quiet, contemplative and somewhat Zen. I can browse around and absentmindedly throw in the staples while letting my mind settle into a low grade hum.

One of my favorite aspects of living on the East and West Coast was the plethora of fresh organic food markets and specialty stores for spices and the like. I took such pleasure in developing special relationships with the mom and pop owners. I would find my favorite fish monger who had the tilapia my husband loved, the baker who satisfied my voracious cravings for cinnamon scones, the meat market butcher who had the best marinated lamb my kids adored, and the glorious and colorful farmer's market to empty my pocketbook of every dollar to get some fabulous greens. These trips framed my sense of community by greeting friends here and there, and created a lovely psychological stability.

Currently, my closest hometown grocery store is the Super Walmart. Granted, the store "technically" has everything one needs to eat for years on end. Yet, it is just not the same. The veggies are sub par and generic; the bread aisle features the likes of Sarah Lee or the Wonder variety. The gaping, brightly-lit bins of meats, cheeses and frozen foods that divides the super highway aisles looks as inviting as a cattle trough.

Considering myself an eternal optimist, I tried to find my Zen and create a new groove. Yet, after a while, the yearning for Trader Joe's filled my mind like a long lost lover. I would reminisce about the goofy Hawaiian-shirted workers and all the unique specialty favs like yellow curry, agave/maple syrup and seaweed rice crackers. Don't even get me started about the "two-buck chuck."

What is it that makes a grocery store stand out? There is no underestimating the power of ambience, food quality, and little details. When walking into a Trader Joe's store, the front steps are always blazing with flowers that are cheap enough to rationalize the indulgence, followed by a direct line into the fresh produce that is tantalizing, fresh and overflowing. When I walk into the Super Walmart, I am greeted with eight foot high displays of Lay's potato chips, Capri sun packets and bins of $1 candy. There's no doubt the sight, smells and design of the place we frequent for daily sustenance makes a difference on our food choices.

When living in a densely-populated area, locals complain if they had to drive more than 10 miles to get somewhere. In a rural community, folks will journey three hours away for weekend entertainment without blinking an eye. The closest large town for us now is about 100 miles away, and the last time we were passing through, I noticed they featured an impressive-sized Whole Foods.

The seed was planted. After a couple of months of nonstop Super Walmart, I had enough. I decided to take a field trip for the day while the kids were in school just to go to Whole Foods and stock up. You would not believe how thrilling this was for me, and I was a bit giddy with anticipation. In fact, the night before, I had a vivid dream of going grocery shopping in San Diego at a fantasy two-story grocery store right on the ocean, with white sands and sparkling water lapping right up to the doors that were spilling out with giant-sized strawberries, orchids and matcha tea smoothies. Perhaps the winds, dust and tumbleweeds are having more of an effect on me than I realized.

Just like Trader Joe's, the reason people will gladly lay down a 20 percent increase in price to frequent Whole Foods is that it just feels good to be there. As I pulled in, eager to stretch my back on a lovely autumn day, the entrance was spilling over with displays of brightly-colored pink pumpkins and warty gourds, complete with recipes of what to do with them after they adorn the front porch, and trays of freshly-sliced honey crisp apples with fresh ground peanut butter. Groovy and fit-looking people were chatting at the café tables sipping lattes. Yes! I must have looked like a grinning idiot.

I danced my cart through the aisles, tossing in gorgeous yellow and pink beets, purple kale, orange cauliflower and fresh figs. (What do to with fresh figs? Who cares?) I could feel my oxytocin "feel-good hormone" levels rising with the adventure of finding nibs of smoked fish or bins of black quinoa, and with each discovery revitalizing the monotony of meal preparation.

Granted, by the time I was done and had loaded up my reusable canvas bags with sparkling waters, specialty cheeses and cucumber white tea, I had banged my credit card pretty hard. It took me a total of six hours to make this journey, almost a full tank of gas... and worth every penny.

I decided to share my experience with Tess Morrison, an intuitive reader and tri-athlete swim coach back on the East Coast, to explore this visceral reaction to grocery shopping. She offered these wise words:

"Food is a sensory experience. Trader Joe's and Whole Food know that. It is anticipation and excitement they are selling. They cultivate that by tantalizing the senses, bright colors, bold flavors, exotic aromas, recipes to lead you in new unexplored directions. A veritable island of new possibilities. Sometimes Walmart has the compulsory feel of a going to a doctor's office visit. Bleuck."

How does shopping for food shape your inner life? I'd love to hear your thoughts and stories in the comment box below.

For more by Kari Henley, click here.

For more on personal health, click here.

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