trader joe's

A Foodie’s Defense of Trader Joe’s

A few years back, when my interest in food and cooking collided with my political side, and I, like millions of others, discovered Michael Pollan, I made some very serious pronouncements and decisions about food. Of course, I blogged about these decisions, as I did about all of my decisions in those days. Oh, how sure I was that I was correct! I railed against the arrangement of grocery stores, I was a shameless farmers market booster, I advocated for an overhaul of our food system (as loose a term as this may be) and I preached the gospel of locavorism, cooking and education.

As you can see, I completely changed the world. You’re welcome.

Shortly after I had this awakening, we moved to Europe, where we ate, cooked and shopped for over three years. We bought flour and whole grains from a local mill. We bought eggs, cheese and raw milk from nearby farmers. Our honey came from a beekeeper in the next village. Our meat came from pigs and chickens raised in the region, or sometimes even in our neighborhood. We despaired at the lackluster produce selection in the popular grocery store chains—Southwest Germany’s not a place that demands a lot of variety in the produce department—even as we delighted in the fresh berries, quince, potatoes and field greens we could buy from neighbors—produce we could watch grow, along with the grains for our local beer, along the paths where we walked our dog, Jim, every day.

Now that we’re back in San Diego, we shop at our local farmers market every Sunday. When we can make it work, we buy at a local co-op across town. But a great deal of our food comes from Trader Joe’s, and we buy the majority of our meat at Whole Foods. And you know what? I’m ok with that. Corporate food, as a friend of mine calls it, may not be the ideal, but it’s a legitimate option. Being a pragmatist, I see convincing the existing system to do better as a much more realistic goal, for now, than toppling the system and creating a new one that looks more like the one was saw in rural Germany. And there’s nothing wrong with convenience, which is something I think the foodie community would do well to remember sometimes.

That’s not to say that I don’t wish Trader Joe’s wouldn’t wrap produce in plastic and cellophane—I do. I hope they someday add to their organic meat and cheese selection. I think they could do much, much better at sourcing items locally; there’s something insane about stocking tomatoes from Holland when it’s tomato season here in Southern California. There’s room for improvement all over the store. But on the other hand, their store brand products—often name brands in disguisedon’t ever contain trans fats or GMOs.* Though they lag behind some other chains on local produce, they have many more organic** choices than they used to. Their wine selection alone is enough to get me into the store, but that’s another story. I don’t love their secretive way of doing business, but if their policy allows more people to afford better food, I’m willing to give them a pass for now, and press for better as time goes on.

And then there’s the pre-cut bags of fruit and veg, and all those bagged greens. Yes, that’s a lot of plastic! Yes, there are environmental and even some health concerns associated with these products. But on the other hand, I’m happy that a busy shopper can swing in, buy pre-cut squash, some organic milk and perhaps even some prepared mirepoix and, in just a few minutes, have homemade soup. Sure, it’ll cost more than it would if s/he bought these items and prepped them at home, but is it better than some sodium-packed canned soup, made with ingredients they didn’t choose? Absolutely. As for bagged greens, how many people are fitting more greens into their diets because it’s so much easier to open a bag full of a variety of healthy greens that are ready to eat than it is to pick through, wash, spin and store? Based on how much I see stocked at my local store, much of which is organic, I’m guessing quite a few.

Michael Pollan, and all of the wonderful, insightful writers he led me to, make a compelling case for improving the way we shop and feed ourselves. And they’re right, we do need to make changes. But does doing better mean changing, completely, the way we shop? Does it mean never taking a shortcut? It could, sure. But it could also mean thoughtfully choosing what we buy from big chain stores who are trying to do better.

I’m no less horrified by factory farming, the dominance of monoculture planting, or the prospect of untested technologies like GMOs being ushered into our food supply than I was a few years ago. I still want to work toward a world where farmers can grow a variety of crops sustainably, and in a way that provides their families with a measure of financial security. I want agricultural workers to be paid, and treated, fairly. But let’s face it, we’re not going to get every American consumer out of the grocery store. We’re not going to convince everyone that every meal needs to be homemade. There has to be a middle path. Trader Joe’s, flaws and all, just might be it. It’s cheap, it introduces shoppers to new and adventurous products, and hell, if pre-cut brussels sprouts get people to eat brussels sprouts, then I say bring it.

So I embrace a corporate grocery store, albeit a flawed one. If they stock something I don’t want to buy, whether it’s because it’s been shipped too far, it’s wrapped in too much packaging, it’s been raised irresponsibly, or any other practice with which I take issue, I won’t buy it. But in general, I’ll accept the compromise of bagged greens if it means more people are eating greens. I’ll skip the imported oranges, the overgrown kale and the Mexican avocados when I can do better at the farmers market, and I’ll always buy eggs from a local farmer. I’ll stay very fussy about the origins of the meat I eat. And I’ll embrace convenience when it makes sense.

* There’s a persistent rumor out there that their house brand is free of high fructose corn syrup as well, but I can’t find any verification of this claim.

** Yes, I know, organic often means industrial organic. But you can still safely make some important assumptions based on this less-than-perfect distinction, which is still something.

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One Response to “A Foodie’s Defense of Trader Joe’s”

  1. kim place-gateau April 3, 2014 at 3:00 pm #

    Oooh, hello, comment from last year! You’ve been neglected long enough. (Also, I didn’t see it until today, somehow.)

    Yes to your point about neighborhoods. TJ’s is definitely an upper middle class urban/slightly suburban experience. Ideally, these mostly faultless convenience foods would be a perfect remedy to the food deserts we all know exist in working-poor neighborhoods. Maude knows they could use a break on availability, price and time. And if you’re living somewhere where you don’t have much of a kitchen, or you can’t afford to equip yourself with good knives, an immersion blender and such, TJ’s shortcuts become a way you can eat far better than you can at Popeye’s or McDonalds.

    We’re going to have to wean ourselves soon. No TJ’s in Hawaii.