RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Rodale.com talked to activist and international journalist Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved (Melville House) at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s 18th Annual Farming for the Future Conference. He believes that our food system is completely out of whack: Why else would there be 1 billion obese people in the world, while a billion others are starving? Patel says the handful of companies that control food distribution and huge supermarket chains are to blame for this discombobulated distribution of food—much of which is unhealthy for us anyway. “All supermarkets are structures that make us buy more than we need,” Patel says. “We know they’re evil but we all return to them because they’re convenient.”
Most of us probably don’t consider our local grocery store “evil.” But if you’ve noticed that you tend to walk out with more stuff in your cart than you planned, here are five sneaky supermarket strategies that may be to blame:
1. They put the milk in the back. We wish we could say they do this so you get more exercise. But grocery store milk, and other things that just about everybody needs, are put in the back of the store so you (and your children) are more likely to make impulse purchases as you make your way the dairy section and back. To avoid weighing your cart down with unnecessary junk, tabloids, and candy in the store’s “golden triangle,” (the route from the door, to the milk, to the checkout), stay around the edges of the story rather than meandering through the aisles. Don’t go in without a list, and don’t buy anything not on the list.
2. They bake bread. Even if you don’t buy bread when you go to the supermarket, its aroma may taunt you, sometimes from vents above your head. “The smell of baking bread makes us buy more stuff,” Patel says. “Some places too small for a bakery actually add the scent of baking bread to the air conditioning systems.” Short of nose plugs or a bad cold, it’s hard to avoid this one. But being aware of the phenomenon may help you pay more attention to what you’re grabbing from the shelves.
3. They depress you into buying more. Want to know if your supermarket chain is messing with your head? Listen to what type of music’s playing. Patel says the place you are most likely to hear depressing music from the 80s and 90s is in supermarkets—and that’s because it makes you put more stuff in your cart. “As a result, millions of people have been exposed to Annie Lennox,” Patel joked at the conference. If you suspect your grocer’s trying to mope you into a buying binge, arm yourself with music player loaded with favorite tunes, and pop in those earbuds.
4. They lure your kid at eye level. While you’re comparing prices between laundry detergents (you are picking the unscented, plant-based type, right?), your kids are tugging on your pants, begging for the dual-colored water guns located about 3 ½ feet from the floor—directly in their reach. Coincidence? Patel says stores place kid-friendly items at the little ones’ eye levels so they’ll hound parents into making unnecessary purchases. Steel yourself to say no, or leave the kids with a friend when you need to shop.
5. They nickel and dime you with produce. Patel was part of a focus group examining the spending habits of working class Canadian women. After comparing food bills, it turns out the women who paid a higher cost up front for weekly produce shares in a local community-supported agriculture program actually spent less than women who headed to the grocery store on a regular basis. Plus, because much of the produce in supermarkets is shipped from all over the world, grocery stores tend to sell varieties that can withstand long shipments—not the ones that taste the best. Compare a tomato shipped in a plastic container from California to an organic one pulled fresh from your farmer’s field the same day it’s sold. There’s no contest!