When I was single, I lived in neighborhoods which were beginning to gentrify. My jobs were in more upscale areas, and I often went to the grocery store in the upscale area near my office. Other times, I shopped in a grocery store of the same chain, but in my neighborhood – which was still primarily a poor area of town.
Over time I began to notice something interesting. Although both stores had the advertised specials and many of the same foods, there was a noticeable difference in some of the items they chose to carry in large quantities and the extra sale items. Unfortunately, in the cases of the gentrifying neighborhoods, extra sales were often on junk food while in pricier areas more exotic fruits, vegetables and leaner cuts of meat were more often on sale.
I learned a lot from noticing these differences in the grocery stores. Not just about how the stores chose to do business, but I also got to know other customers, workers and learned about some foods I might have passed by in the tiny corner in which they were placed in the more upscale store. In the gentrifying store, these same items were available in large, inexpensive quantities and there were many helpful people to teach me how to choose and prepare the items so I could enjoy them.
Over the years, we have learned one of the best places to go when you are on vacation – particularly in another region or country- is the local grocery store. You and your children can learn a lot by being observant as you walk around the aisles. Here are some of my favorites:
- What are the prices for common items? Are they higher or lower than you pay at home? If you are in another country, does the average wage in that country enable the people to buy the same amount of groceries your family does? Would buying food at the local market be a hardship on most people? If so, where do they actually shop for food? In many places, there is a central market only locals use. We will often visit this too, but be aware English is less likely to be spoken in these purely local markets. (Also ask if the area is safe for outsiders before venturing back into non tourist areas.)
- What items are in large quantities and possibly featured on sale, probably indicating they are local favorites? Have you tried them before? Ask people shopping or workers how to prepare them safely or for a restaurant nearby that serves these foods. Be careful if you are in a country with unsafe drinking water. Washing fruits and vegetables in the sink (as we would normally do in the U.S.) can render them unsafe to eat. Also, we were recently in a country where several of the foods had to be prepared properly or they were poisonous. We chose to allow a local cook to prepare those foods for us.
- What items are the same or almost the same as you can find at home? Much empathy training doesn’t work because we tend to focus only on our differences. This can widen the gap between us and those we are attempting to know. Focusing on the similarities can narrow the gap considerably. Most countries I have visited have breads, cookies and the ever popular corn flakes cereal. Knowing the local kids love the same cookie or cereal your kids do, may make your kids a little bolder about getting to know some local children and learning about their lives.
- What items are unique because of the particular city you are visiting? We recently visited an island nation. Because they are an island, their grocery store carried more shelf stable items – cheaper to transport to the island than keeping them refrigerated. Margarine and milk are shelf stable in that country and even some fish and meats were packaged in some sort of shrink wrap that kept them shelf stable. Your children will learn sometimes the environment has a greater effect on what is available than the local culture.
- What if any influence can you tell the U.S. and its citizens who travel have had on what is available to purchase? This one is sometimes easier to tell if you return to the same country several times. On our first mission visits to Mexico we couldn’t find peanut butter anywhere. Fast forward more than a decade later and we had as many peanut butter choices in Mexican stores as at any U.S. grocery store.
- What influence has this country and its citizen travelers and ex-pats had on our grocery stores? I remember on our school trip to France decades ago, we went to a local grocery store. Unable to find peanut butter, we bought the closest thing we could find. Less than impressed, it still created a very vivid memory for us. Fast forward several decades later and our iffy substitute had become the Nutella rage in the U.S.
- If the U.S. imports items from this country, do they taste fresher when you buy them locally? Our recent trip was to a place where nutmeg and allspice (among other things) are grown. We are having fun using the local varieties we brought back with us.
- Try to strike up conversations with other customers and workers. Ask them their favorite places to eat or to take visitors. Ask them questions you and your children have had about the things you have seen or heard. We learn a lot on every trip by talking to “regular” people. Often we have found the official message put out by tour companies and governments is slightly or even greatly different from the real world the people inhabit. Note though if you asked the same number of people similar questions in your own neighborhood how varied the responses might be. Don’t forget to factor in personal preferences to what you learn from others. If we felt a question was important, we would often ask people in several different places and compare the answers. (Sometimes followed by a Google search upon reaching home.)
- Does the most popular religion, minority culture in the country or some other factor change the items in the store? At home, we live in an area with a lot of people who practice Judaism. We can find anything kosher without much trouble. When we visit Mexico, Catholic items can be found on the shelves next to popular food items. In the country we recently visited, a lot of people from India had migrated there for work. Although you would not associate India with this country in any way, it was easy to find foods preferred by the many ex-pats from India.
- Special bonus tip: We have found many grocery stores have a minor Super Target influence now. You can often find local magazines, newspapers, cookbooks and items packaged as souvenirs. In fact, we have found many people back home would prefer a useful gift like a unique packaged food item than a cheap knickknack. (Make sure and double check customs rules as some items are restricted from bringing back into the U.S. or can only be imported when purchased and packaged in certain ways.)
The next time you take your children to a new area on vacation, ask people for the location of the nearest grocery store. Take your kids on a field trip of discovery and learn what you can about the people who live there. I think you will be surprised how much more you will learn about the area from a simple grocery trip.