Shopping Matters

Chapel Hill News logoSeptember 8, 2010

My latest column in CHN’s long-running “My View” series.

I am what I call a schizo-shopper. Are you? Let me explain.

On Tuesday evenings I head over to a parking lot in Carrboro to choose fresh produce from a local farmer. We’re part of a farmer-consumer relationship called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

It’s a way for us city folk to buy directly from local growers, like at the Farmer’s Market, only with a CSA you sign up and pay for the season and then pick from whatever the farmer has harvested each week. I might come home with butternut squash, okra, mustard greens, home-made goat cheese and eggs.

Whatever we select we try to make the centerpiece of our meals. Last night for instance we ate squash, an omelet, and sauteed okra. I feel great, maybe even a bit righteous, supporting a local grower and stretching a small amount of organic food over several meals.

But now let me confess my little out-of-county jaunt the other day to Sam’s Club. How could that same conscientious consumer be stocking up on those four-pound packs of butter? And that fat round of double cream brie that costs less than a small wax-paper wrapped roll of CSA goat cheese? I’m tempted to pick up a rotisserie chicken for under $5, then remember the roaster in my freezer, the neck of which was broken by the Carrboro farmer. Uncooked, it cost three times the price of this ready-to-eat fowl.

I eye the two-in-one 18 packs of eggs, then consider the recent massive national recall. The local dozen in my fridge is way more expensive, but mine come from chickens that scratch and peck all day out in the fresh air. They don’t live in some horror-show hen mill, where five birds vie for laying space in a tiny fluorescent-lit cage.

Support our local economy, I remind myself – Orange County, that is. Still I scan Sam’s Club’s winter coats for deals. But didn’t I promise myself I’d shop in town? Didn’t I buy that black dress from a Carr Mill Mall boutique (I’ll wear it to every fancy occasion until I die) instead of sifting through racks in a Durham County discount chain?

Put my tax dollars into our schools, police force, sidewalks. A rich friend of mine is incredulous that I go to Carrboro Family Vision for eye care and glasses when I could get everything so much cheaper at Sam’s or Costco. “What are you, nuts?” she asks.

So I look at the Sam’s sunglasses. I need a prescription pair; the Southern glare is getting to me. But then I remember those nice people and their care at the place in town and I wonder: In five years will they all be forced to work in places like Sam’s? Will Mom and Pop establishments go the way of the dodo?

Even with its recent new entrance and updated interior, University Mall still feels ghostly. I buy baby gifts at the Children’s Store & Toy Corner, cards at Cameron’s, coffee makers at Kitchenworks and garden supplies at Rose’s – all the time wishing the entire place weren’t so quiet and empty feeling.

An old college friend of my husband’s visited us a few months ago. Dave showed up in his temporary “home,” a rusted minivan that’s groaning across the country on four of its six cylinders. His traveling companion, an ancient mutt named Chloe, lives in the passenger seat and shares the back area with him at night, in campgrounds and rest areas.

Dave told us he’d lost just about everything in a recent divorce. He’s homeless and out of work, living on a meager Social Security check and odd jobs. “My money would go much farther at big box stores,” he said. “But what I do is buy locally, eat a whole lot less. And I get to experience the real America, not just the strip malls.”

But what, I can’t help wondering, is the real America?

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