This morning, I steeled myself for my monthly Costco run. I’d chosen the day and time to avoid crowds and blocked aisles. I put on comfortable shoes, grabbed a jacket for the refrigerated produce room, and rearranged the stuff in the back of the van to make room for the fresh haul. I set out early, hoping to snag a parking spot without circling.
Sure enough, the lot was already nearing capacity as I pulled in. I felt a little jolt of adrenaline—part excitement, part dread—as I parked at the far end and made a beeline for the entrance. Dozens of other early shoppers rushed toward the open doors, jostling for carts. I flashed back to the tiny grocery store of my childhood in rural Kansas. The bell above the door jingled when Mom and I entered with her short list and greeted the checkout clerk by name. We’d stroll the short, quiet aisles, pick up our few staples, and head home to make dinner from the freezer and garden.
This morning, as soon as I pushed my empty cart through the Costco entrance, the football-field-sized warehouse of gluttonous possibilities before me, I was overwhelmed by the towering stacks, the rushing breeze, the aromas. So much so, that the first items in my cart were two bags of Godiva chocolates that were not on my list. Beautifully packaged, and such a great deal!
I snapped to after that momentary diversion and started my efficient route through the store, homing in on the staples I was after. Large carton of oatmeal. Chicken thighs. Peanut butter. Only two varieties—thank God. Too many choices make me crazy. I grabbed the smooth kind. On to the rice. My long legs ate up the aisles; it felt good to exert myself. The store’s merchandise is stacked on pallets. Kind of like a hardware store, everything laid out in a no-frills, pseudo-DIY experience. I hoisted a heavy box of oat milk into the cart, feeling muscly.
I completed my list in record time and wheeled to the checkout. I wouldn’t have to come back for a month. As I leaned in to push the heavy cart out to the edge of the parking lot, I breathed deeply in relief, and I congratulated my sweaty self on a job well done. I hoisted everything into the back of the van, drove home, unloaded in several trips, then reapportioned some items into smaller containers for freezing, musing over Costco’s effectiveness as I did so.
I dislike most shopping. But buying in bulk satisfies something deep within me. It reminds me of my agrarian ancestors—including my parents’ generation—and my own childhood. Both sides of my family have always farmed and gardened and raised animals. Then we picked and dug up and butchered and canned and froze and pickled and preserved so we could eat through the winter. Food took a lot of work. We treated it carefully and with reverence. When my father said the blessing at family events, he thanked God for the food and asked Him to “bless it to the strengthening of our bodies, and bless the hands that prepared it.” Our hands.
On a Kansas summer afternoon, Mom and I would mop our brows in the hot kitchen and admire twenty-four gleaming Mason jars of peaches in rows, after we’d finished the work of blanching and halving and pitting and peeling. We’d line these up with the canned green beans and dill pickles and tomato juice and strawberry jam on shelves in the basement, our pantry.
We made huge pots of applesauce and froze packets by the score. We baked our own bread. The recipe made five loaves; we’d make four batches on a Saturday, then bag and carry twenty loaves to the basement freezer. We planted row upon row of potatoes; the harvest would be counted in bushels, which we spread on newspapers in the cool basement, our version of a root cellar. For many months afterward Mom would send me to the basement to get the ingredients for dinner. We went to the grocery store maybe once a week but didn’t buy much there. We wasted very little food and generated only a small amount of trash.
I don’t do much food preservation anymore—beyond occasional dill pickles or strawberry freezer jam—and neither does anyone else I know in San Diego, but I get a whiff of the same hit as I trundle a case of black beans, two boxes of my son’s snack bars, thirty-six rolls of toilet paper, and an army-sized sack of tortilla chips into my cart. I’m all set! Security and accomplishment flood my body. I feel like a good gatherer and provider for my family.
But along with this realization of why I enjoy stocking up, I’m reminded that the reality of the food system I’m engaged in is hidden from me. My Costco experience is streamlined and removed from the source of the actual food. I don’t have to think about anything except getting what I want in plenty, and at an excellent price.
But what did it take to bring the food to my local Costco? Who’s growing and picking my organic greens yet can’t afford to eat them? Whose budget includes the price of a Costco membership and whose doesn’t? What kind of energy is required to process and package and bring these exotic ingredients from the corners of the globe? My store shopping makes these details invisible. The model is not sustainable or healthy or just, not for the planet or for its citizens.
The knowledge of this unsustainability and injustice is always in the back of my mind, mixed with missing the immediacy of growing and sharing food. But I haven’t fully embraced an alternative. I’m not living on a farm, nor do I want to. And I know the enormous time and effort growing one’s own food entails. So I’m trying to wake up, to look beneath the surface of my food procurement. Shop less and buy local and independent is one strategy I could employ. A block down the street from Costco is The Fruit Stand, a family-owned store carrying locally-grown produce. I go there occasionally; I can do so more often. And I could sign up for a weekly share of fresh produce through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).
I planted a small spring garden last week. It’s minimal, but an opportunity to share with my neighbors and reconnect with soil and seeds. It is a common modern experience to feel cut off from the reality that our sustenance comes from the ground under our feet. When I step outside to harvest and then wash and chop and cook homegrown bok choy, I eat it mindfully and with reverence.
Am I going to swear off Costco? Probably not this year. But I hope to keep my eyes open when I show my membership card and step inside. I want to continue asking myself the harder questions. And I hope to pull back in the direction of the conscious care my parents took to provide for our family. I want to eat in a manner that treats food with the respect it deserves and sees its abundant springing from the earth as a miracle—one that honors the many hands that make my meals possible.
photo credit: Tim Mossholder, Unsplash
“Fast Strawberries” Note from the photographer: “When strawberries are harvested, the pickers are paid by the box, so they run with their filled boxes to ensure they can pick as many as possible and earn enough money during harvest season. Be thankful to those who get food to our tables.”