Why online grocery shopping isn't for me

grocery store window
CC BY 2.0 ornello_pics

As a conscientious shopper and dedicated locavore, there are just so many things I think about while shopping that I can't imagine handing over to a company.

Last year I met a young woman who lives in New York City and does all her grocery shopping online. The order gets delivered to her apartment. As we compared shopping habits, she spoke nostalgically of the grocery store, telling me how much she misses shopping for food in person, comparing prices and brands, and being surrounded by other shoppers. She also lamented the amount of excess plastic packaging that comes with online orders.

I was surprised, since that was the first time I’d ever heard of online grocery shopping. Stores here in rural southwestern Ontario certainly don’t offer that option, nor does the idea of such a service appeal to me. Even though grocery shopping can be a hassle, I have trouble imagining relinquishing that much control over my food shopping to a company. There are just so many things I think about while shopping.

I think about the source of the foods I buy. When I pick up my CSA shares (vegetables are weekly or biweekly, and grains are monthly), the food is transferred directly from the hands of the farmers who actually grew that food into mine. Much of what appeals to me about local shopping is eliminating the “middlemen” and other levels of intervention that delay the delivery of fresh food, mark up prices, and distance eaters from growers.

I think a lot about packaging. By taking my own reusable containers and bags to the grocery store, bulk food food, butcher and fish shops, I am able to cut down drastically on the amount of wasted generated by my household. The woman’s reference to excessive plastic packaging gives me nightmares; I wouldn’t be comfortable throwing away that much plastic simply for the convenience of having groceries delivered.

Related to waste is the huge issue of “ugly” fruits and vegetables, which are usually discarded by grocery stores. People who are forking out extra cash to have groceries delivered to their home likely wouldn’t be happy with bag of deformed carrots and lemons. At the grocery store, however, I am able to seek out ugly produce or almost-expired clearance items for less. Not only do they cost less, but I feel good about diverting them from the grocer’s dumpster.

One or both of my kids always shops with me. North Americans in general are already so separated from the sources of their food that implementing yet another degree of separation only exacerbates the problem. I don’t want my kids to grow up thinking that groceries appear on the doorstep by magic, just as I don’t want them to think that meals appear magically on the table. They see me chopping up the same ingredients that we carefully selected at the market to prepare meals from scratch. We talk about factory farming, pesticides, and growing seasons.

Some people do think that online grocery shopping can be beneficial, particularly if the retailer determines the delivery route in order to maximize efficiency, and people don’t have to make individual trips to the store in their cars. But that argument falls a bit flat in urban settings where online shopping is most popular and where people, in theory, could get their groceries quite easily without a car.

Civil Eats points out that, if a retailer specializes in local and sustainable fare, customers “can instantly see a great deal of information about any given product, including where it was grown or manufactured.” But that information could be greenwashed just as easily as countless products in the grocery store. I prefer to get my facts directly from the farmer.

A huge part of reclaiming our broken food system is getting out of the house and into our communities; acquainting ourselves with the local food providers; consciously choosing their products over others; and making the effort to show up at a farmers’ market on Saturday mornings. It’s about trading in convenience for connection, as counterintuitive to our fast-paced culture as that may sound.

In the meantime I’ll continue to do my own shopping, as it’s the best way I know to reduce waste, educate the next generation, and buy the highest quality food, even if it means driving my old, small car once a week around town.

Tags: Farmers Markets | Food Miles | Shopping | Waste

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