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Monday, January 15, 2024

Grocery Shopping Then and Now: Today and Into the Future, My Kids' Generation

A tale of the income divide

As I look around at the young 20 and 30-somethings in my region, I see a growing discrepancy in individual incomes between the better off and the less well-off. The Seattle area has been known as a tech industry center for several decades. An article I read a while back suggested that it is these tech salaries (primarily software engineers and their bosses) that tremendously skew the (high) median income for the city of Seattle. In the tech industry, there aren't just a handful of software engineers making these larger-than-average salaries. Computer software technology is listed as one of the key industries for my area. There are a lot of highly-compensated software engineers working in Seattle. And most of them are young 20, 30, and 40-somethings.

On the flip-side, you have all of the workers who support the tech industry employees in one way or another, people like the Starbucks' employees making the perfect latte, or the cashier at Whole Foods who can't easily afford the foods she swipes across the scanner during her shift, or the Uber drivers (who shuttle techies to and from work, an evening on the town, or the game at Lumen Field), or the substitute teachers (like my daughters) who spend their days with the young kids of the area's software employees. 

There have always been rich and poor. It isn't that the less-wealthy are shopping in dumpsters. It's that really upscale markets have been created to cater to the young, more well-off singles and couples, stores like Whole Foods and Amazon Go, while the lower income people shop at the budget stores like Walmart, Grocery Outlet and WinCo.

Will healthier versions of food only be for the better-off?

What bothers me about this discrepancy is that it feels like sometime in our future, the healthier foods will be only for the more financially-successful people. Stores like Whole Foods sell versions of foods that used to be available to all in regular supermarkets. 

Let me give you an example from my own life. In the not-too-distant past (like 5-10 years ago), the ingredients' list on a carton of whipping cream sold in Safeway, Fred Meyer, or any other regular grocery store listed "sweet cream" or some similar wording and nothing else. At Fred Meyer right now, the ingredients' list for whipping cream reads as follows:  "Cream, Milk, Carrageenan, Mono and Diglycerides, Polysorbate 80."Those additional ingredients for current cartons of whipping cream may be harmful to some peoples' bodies. For me, that's carrageenan, an additive that many GI docs say to avoid like the plague if you have any of the digestive disorders. 

It isn't just my experience. This article about luxurious grocery stores states, "Whole Foods offers shoppers the opportunity to purchase items they may not be able to find at their local Walmart. In addition, they sell products that do not contain any artificial colors, flavors or preservatives."

According to this paper from the NIH, in the US there are over 2500 additives that are allowed by our government to be added to the foods we eat. Not all food additives are harmful to humans. But there are many that are approved and have not been studied for their long-term effects. There's a general consensus that babies (in the womb or born) and small children are the most vulnerable in our population to any compound that could cause harm. The 20 and 30-something generation are the ones starting families, either now or in the very near future. It is their children who will either be fortunate to be born to a couple that are on the wealthier end of the spectrum and can pay for the higher quality/unadulterated foods, or will be born to parents who, by necessity, will be buying the highly commercialized food products that often come with as many additives as real foods on the ingredients' list.

Many in our generation might think, "well, we survived and are okay." That is true. However, many of us grew up eating fewer packaged foods and more whole foods. Just take a look at your neighborhood supermarket. The amount of commercial boxed products is astounding. When I was a kid and wanted a fruity snack, I was offered a piece of whole fruit or a handful of raisins. The fruit snacks that a lot of kids are given now are really just candy.

There have been upscale grocery stores for many decades. For the most part, these upscale stores carried the same foods and brands as the budget stores. The distinction between the two levels of grocery stores had to do with the shopping experience and not necessarily the foods sold. The difference I see happening now is that in order to find the less-adulterated food products, you have to shop at places like Whole Foods and pay Whole Foods-prices.

My son and daughter-in-law

While I've only been shopping with my daughter-in-law once, I have a sense for how they shop based on conversations. The two of them often shop together. Shopping is a sort of date experience. They buy lots of fresh foods and some high-end convenience products. Their grocery budget is significantly larger than mine. They place a greater emphasis on finding the most healthful product possible than I did in the past. They try new products or foods regularly. I have learned a lot about the merits or lack of merits of various foods from both of them. 

They shop at a variety of venues, including farmers' markets, Trader Joe's, Amazon Fresh, Costco, Whole Foods, a couple of Asian markets, WinCo occasionally (where the bulk bins are), and a couple of other local markets. I think they've tried Amazon Go (the cashier-less store). Although they can afford to spend more on food than I can, they also love a good deal. They keep a Prime membership and stock up on products at Whole Foods when there's a sale plus Prime discount. So it's not like they're wasteful. They look for value and best price on healthy food items.

I see their generation as having even more concern over the way produce is farmed, or meat, eggs, and dairy animals are raised and harvested. When my mother's generation shopped for eggs, the only differences between what was available had to do with size. Although my son and daughter-in-law could buy cheaper eggs, they're looking for quality, preferring pasture-raised eggs -- something that wasn't sold in grocery stores when I just started out.

My daughters

Both of my daughters are trying to get less-conventional careers off the ground. In the meantime, they try to pick up substitute teaching jobs in our school district. Neither have a compensation package with substitute teaching, such as medical or dental insurance, paid sick time, or paid vacation. They may work long hours at their various jobs, but they don't yet earn enough to live on their own. Our grocery arrangement is they each pay a share of the grocery bill from when I shop for the family. They also buy foods that I typically don't buy (like snack or lunch foods), or brands that they prefer. One daughter also likes to try to be more independent with food purchases and buys her own milk, oatmeal, fresh fruit and vegetables, tofu and treat foods. 

When either of them grocery shop, they stick to Walmart, WinCo, Grocery Outlet, and a nearby ethnic market for produce. They would like to have the ability to shop at Costco, but the membership fee is too steep for either of them, or to even share. (Costco carries some large packs of organic snack foods that both of them would enjoy.)

Both try to cook from scratch for their own breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. In that way, they are able to eat healthfully. But, as we all know, cooking from scratch is time-consuming. And, shopping on a budget means that they're not always able to buy organics or unadulterated products/ingredients. 

I can hope that in the future there will be "healthy" choices available at all income levels. Will some manufacturers decide to ditch some of the additives without having to pass on a price increase to the consumer? Can a major corporation even put peoples' needs before its responsibility to shareholders? What do you think the future will hold with respect to grocery shopping?

It's been interesting to me to think through the changes in grocery shopping since my grandmother's day. I have a keen interest in learning about the lived experience of people from the past. I feel I can learn a lot that I can in some way apply to my own life now, as well as be grateful for what I don't have to do because of progress made. I hope my little exploration of the decades has been interesting to you, too.


  1. Lili, there should be a well paying job for you out there with the wealth of information that you research and live by. I would take your class if you offered one. Your commentary is so spot on. I often wonder about my youngest daughter (the new mother to be) is too busy to cook at home. They go out to eat almost every meal. I'm very concerned about that if they continue this long term. It's a difficult discussion to have with double income no kids. No offense to anyone, but eating out every meal can't possibly be good, can it?

    1. Hi Alice,
      Wishing your daughter and her husband all the best. Perhaps after the baby is born, going out to eat may not seem so attractive.

  2. Lili, there is a series of books called Stories and Recipes of the Great Depression by Rita Van Amber that is a fantastic resource of stories and recipes. I have all 5 volumes and although they were a bit pricey they are really worth every penny in my opinion.

    I have four kids age 21-24 living at home and it's been interesting seeing their food choices now that they are adults. My oldest was just hired on as a plumber and is working long hours so I've been helping out with making breakfasts and lunches for him so he doesn't have to rely on fast food. Technically I'm making the choices for him and he's paying so there hasn't been much difference in what he's eating and paying for than previously. My middle son works at Chik-Fil-A and is able to get a free meal there daily but chooses not to due to health concerns (it's still fast food, although maybe a step up from other places) so he prepares his lunches. My daughter and I are both gluten free so I make a lot of our food. She is currently job hunting after having recently graduated and is becoming much more aware of how much food actually costs when we gave her a budget to work with weekly to pay for her "extras" till she's employed so that's been encouraging. My youngest is working at Walmart and eats breakfast and sometimes brings leftovers for lunch but I know he also picks up in store stuff to eat. We do charge rent that covers meals but the fancier stuff is on them.

    1. Hi Trina,
      Thank you for the book and author recommendation. I'll see if I can get a volume from my library through inter-library loan. In the meantime, I'll use Amazon's "preview" function to read what I can. Thank you again!

  3. We have Aldi's here that has a fair number of organic-type foods at a good price. My two sons make different salaries and shop for food differently. And the one who makes less and likes to cook is also the one who is a great bargain shopper. They both have Costco memberships because my son, who works for them, gets them for free, and they buy a number of convenience foods there. However, they both have busy, stressful jobs so take out is on their menu as often as not.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      I'm glad that a store like Aldi that has a reputation for being budget-oriented carries organic products. The one store I can find organic at a good price in our area is Grocery Outlet, the salvage store. They actually have a fair amount of organic items, many of which are less expensive than non-organic bought at Walmart. It's just you can't count on finding any one thing at Grocery Outlet.


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