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When we moved into our new place, we were excited to be within walking distance of some key locations - parks, schools, grandparents' house, just to name a few. Since we're actively trying to reduce our energy usage for both cost-saving and environmental reasons, this was a boon. We noticed the new shopping plaza around the corner had a Fresh & Easy market and walked there several times to check it out. At first glance, there's a lot to like about their set-up: they've got some great deals on yummy pre-made dinners featuring tastes from around the world, a clearance section with reduced prices on items about to expire, and a great variety of organic options for those of us looking for less processed foods in our lives. It's gotten to the point where I have my routine - I'll head in on a Saturday morning, straight to the clearance aisle and stock up on all sorts of neat meals to fill the freezer with and enjoy throughout the week, then wheel the cart over to the self-checkout and fill up our reusable bags with the loot. At one point, I noticed I was readjusting my schedule just so I could make it there on time to catch the clearance deals - it wasn't just a routine at this point, but an addiction!
Although the savings-conscious, environmentalist with a taste for global fare in me was initially as happy as can be with this arrangement, I started noticing things that troubled other aspects of my personality. For one, the self-checkout model not only leaves you desiring in the customer service arena, it also threatens living-wage paying jobs with health insurance that are offered at unionized grocery stores in the area, such as Ralph's (Kroger), Vons (Safeway) and Albertsons (SuperValu). Fresh & Easy's parent company, Tesco, is based in the United Kingdom and first began opening stores in the U.S. in the fall of 2007. I first heard of the company about a year before I started shopping there, and they were particularly notable in my mind for using a "critical mass" strategy as they entered the U.S. market. This meant they would be opening numerous stores in close proximity to each other (à la McDonalds and Starbucks) in order to become the "grocer of choice" in a neighborhood. In addition to critical mass, also notable was their focus on opening stores in lower-income areas that have traditionally lacked grocery venues. Though laudable for bringing healthier options to poor neighborhoods, some have accused the chain of being the WalMart of grocery stores, bringing substandard jobs in exchange for low prices. This is troubling for a xika of my leanings, that's for sure.
Ahh, but the savings! Not just of my pennies, but of the gas I would be using to go to any of the other markets in my city. The closest Trader Joe's to us is over 6 miles away if we want to stock up on organic options and our beloved rice milk. Even Ralph's is farther than walking distance and usually more expensive. So you'd think Fresh & Easy would be the answer to this dilemma. However, after a recent week of coming home from work and popping in some Fresh & Easy dinners into the oven, our recycling bin was awash in plastic containers, convenience overflowing. Not a happy sight for me, and the turning point in my Fresh & Easy addiction. The convenience of tasty and seemingly healthy food ready-to-eat in a matter of minutes comes at a price for our carbon footprint. Continuing to shop at this store is not aligned with our goals of reducing waste and living leaner. I've come to the conclusion that I will indeed have to start cooking our own meals. As tantalizing as the prices in the clearance section might be, cooking from scratch is cheaper still. Furthermore, as green as Fresh & Easy would have us think we are by shopping there, you can't get around the fact that their "labor-light" business model forces them into a package-intensive mode that adds to our landfills while draining salaries, benefits and resources from our communities.
Will I stop shopping at Fresh & Easy? I probably won't be able to do it cold-turkey, especially since it's walking distance from the house and we'll need to go when we're in a pinch. But I'm making it a goal to buy more fruits and vegetables from local farmer's markets and stocking up on family-size bulk items from Costco. It'll be difficult for this working mom to give up the convenience and bargain-finding thrill, but this is an addiction definitely worth kicking!