Monday, November 24, 2008

Not So Fresh Grocer

Photo by Olivia Coffey

A mouse skitters across the tiled floor, racing for the shelter of the dark hollow beneath the sushi station. A serpentine queue of customers hums with impatience, shopping carts and baskets crammed with paper towel rolls and tomatoes and frozen dinners. A customer in the dairy section examines the scanty selection of yogurt only to find that most cartons are overdue their shelf time.

Any of that sound familiar? Horror stories abound in the perilous aisles of Fresh Grocer, presenting Penn students with a grocery shopping conundrum. Considering the widespread disparagement of Fresh Grocer, its most convenient resource, West Philadelphia is sorely devoid of a reliable grocery store. Senior Stephanie Simon, who has lived off campus since sophomore year and is thus familiar with the struggle to find quality groceries, puts it aptly. “FroGro is the definition of sub-par,” she says, using locals’ familiar moniker for the store. “They routinely have food on their shelves that is past its expiration date... when they have food on their shelves, that is. Most of the time it seems like West Philly is on rations.” Aside from inconistent inventory and unsatisfactory food quality, customer service is also lacking. “It's like Home Depot,” says senior Laura Sagues. “You have to go in there knowing what you want because the people who work there know nothing at all.”

So where do Penn students turn when in search of an apple that isn’t mealy or a fresh loaf of bread without mold trimming its crust?

Many are willing to go the extra mile (literally) to find alternatives to Fresh Grocer that are still realistic for an undergraduate budget, yet promise unspoiled produce, a reliable range of products and a pleasant aisle-browsing experience. Trader Joe’s at 2121 Market Street, Whole Foods Market at 2001 Pennsylvania Avenue and Philadelphia farmers markets offer three nearby resources that meet each of these criteria.

Trader Joe’s bills itself as the ideal neighborhood grocery store, combining healthy and plentiful food and beverages with the guarantee of affordable prices. What makes the chain unique is its versatile product base, including unconventional brands and alternative dietetic products ranging from vegan to kosher to gluten-free. Senior Carlin Adelson touts in particular the healthful ready-made options. "The Trader Joe's frozen meals and sides are great additions that are generally lower in sodium and calories for a quick meal," she says.

A generally congenial atmosphere contributes to the appeal of Trader Joe's. After all, this is a grocery store that outfits its staff in Hawaiian shirts because, as its website proclaims, "grocery shopping should be fun." Food demonstrator Ellen Bohrer, who cooks and distributes food samples at Trader Joe's (yet another shopping perk), says the employees enjoy a high morale, which she believes fosters a pleasant shopping experience. "None of us consider that we work at a grocery store- we consider it a little bit more than that," she says. "The bottom line is, we’re all just a bunch of goofballs and we all get along." Bohrer can attest to the popularity Trader Joe's holds for local undergraduates. "We always know that in September we have to beef up our shift because the students are back," she says. The budget-friendly facet of the TJ's experience is the capstone to what makes a trip to the store ideal for students. Senior Jocelyn Rosenwald phrases it simply: "It's better food for better prices."

Just down the road from Trader Joe's lies Whole Foods Market. In a similar vein to Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods embraces high quality nutritional standards, pledging to sell products free of trans fats, artificial preservatives, colors, flavors and sweeteners. The store also delivers in terms of prices. Through "The Whole Deal" program, customers have access to money saving tips, Whole Foods-specific budget friendly recipes and over $40 in coupons. Whole Foods Marketing Specialist Amy Chidichimo adds, "We give free value tours twice a month that focus on how to shop Whole Foods Market on a budget.”

But Chidichimo says Whole Foods Market is attractive to student grocery shoppers for more than just budgetary reasons. "We have a lot of grab-and-go stuff, for when you're studying for a test and you don't have time to think about what to make,” she says. Arguably, the strongest pull for students is the consistent availability of local and organic fruits and vegetables. Adelson confirms that the fresh produce is the biggest draw. "I know it's closely monitored, organic and won't spoil before I bring it home," she says.

For an even more eco-friendly option in giving a wide berth to Fresh Grocer’s inadequate goods, many students turn to farmers markets such as the Clark Park market at the corner of 43rd and Baltimore. The stalls feature an array of fruits, vegetables, flowers, baked goods, honey, herbs, dairy products and meat every Saturday and on Thursday afternoons April through December. Senior Jane Sussman lauds the high quality standards: "Fresh produce, lots of variety and an amazing antidote to the rot at FroGro.” The University Square market is an even closer option, located outside the Penn bookstore on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.- students can even charge the fruit, vegetables, dairy products and Amish canned and baked goods to their Penn card. Senior Brad Murtha says, prices aside, he prefers a trip to the market over Fresh Grocer because “their stuff is better than grocery store stuff that’s been sitting in the freezer.” Another go-to site is the Rittenhouse market, vending produce, flowers, meat, eggs and dairy from pastured animals Tuesdays 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Saturdays 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Although a trip to farmers markets may stretch the purse strings a little more (a quart of
apples at the Rittenhouse market costs five dollars, and a small bottle of honey sells for six), many Penn patrons consider the chance to contribute to the local agricultural community well worth the money. Junior Andrew Rogers says the trip to a farmers market is all the more worthwhile for the good time it affords, what with the taste of cultural diversity and connection with other Philadelphians. “The experience makes the grocery shopping less of a chore,” he says.

The next time your fridge needs re-stocking, consider branching out from the disappointing aisles that put the “gross” in Fresh Grocer to one of the many other clean and reliable grocery shopping resources our neighborhood offers. Your wallet, your stomach and your conscience will thank you.

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