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Life Lessons at the Supermarket


I love going to the supermarket.

I usually have a long list of the things I’m supposed to buy, but I really want to do is see what’s not on the list. I want to walk up and own every single aisle, explore every offering along the way, and check out what is available, even if I do not plan to buy any of the items I see.

There are some people, whom I wisely choose not to name, who think this is crazy. They go to the supermarket, get what they need, check out as quickly as they can, and then come straight home with their purchases. They feel that shopping for groceries is a chore, not an adventure.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Going to the supermarket is like going on an exploration of the society in which we live. What are people eating, how are they preparing it, and what does it all say about society as a whole? If you want insight into how the world works, don’t turn on the news. That is not now, nor has it ever been, a reflection of reality.

If you want to understand our culture and the people with whom we share it, go to the supermarket.

We all have to eat, and Americans come together at the supermarket, telling their own stories in what they buy, how they act, how they relate to their fellow shoppers, and how they pay for what they buy.

There are the folks who see the market as a place to meet with friends. They block the aisles as they gossip with acquaintances and kinfolk or even people they’ve just met. There are the bickering husbands and wives, snapping at each other over what kind of mustard or jelly to buy. There are the out-of-control children, whether in the cart seat or running up and down the aisles grabbing whatever catches their fancy.

Some brave souls go to the market with a list and an objective. These people are on a mission. For them, it’s in and out fast. Pick up the groceries, do a quick self-checkout, and out the door to the parking lot. These are the efficient and focused people – not at all bad people, but not very curious or interested in the other folks and the drama that unfolds all around them.

Then there are the explorers – people like me, who go up and down every aisle, checking to see what’s being offered – even if they have no plans to buy. The explorers are in the same genus as the bargain hunters with a handful of coupons, looking to save a few cents on each item. The explorers are at war with the people on a mission, because the explorers are always loitering in the aisles, getting in the way and blocking the progress of the in-and-outers.

For explorers, there is a lot to see. There’s the cheese and cheese-like food products – processed slices of cheddar, shredded jack, cheese wedges, string cheese in a stick, and rubbery pretend cheese like Velvetta, Cheez Whiz and American cheese slices – some of it legally classified as cheese and some on the borderline.

There is the dairy section – milk and milk-like products – such things as almond milk, cashew milk, soy milk, coconut milk, and oat milk. These products have nothing to do with milk, except they are a sort of a whiteish liquid that may or may not be creamy. Even the real milk comes in nonfat, 1 percent fat, 2 percent fat, half-and-half, pure cream, and whipping cream, which is often more vegetable oil than dairy product.

There are the novelty items, such as the omelet mixes – all you have to do is add an egg, stir, and microwave. Peanut butter and jelly or chocolate and jelly all pre-stirred in the same jar, mini bagels made to taste like pizzas, dozens of keto products, and various pickles and pickle relishes. The list goes on and on, and explorers want to check out all of it, even if they have no problem with putting their own peanut butter and jelly separately on their own bread.

If you are thirsty, there are sodas (somewhat out of fashion now) mineral waters, energy drinks, fortified water, distilled water, and zero calorie drinks. There’s also a huge variety of juices and juice-like products that are more water, special flavoring and a bunch of dyes. If you want to grab a meal without sitting around a table with your pesky mate or children, there are hot pockets, chicken tenders, frozen calzones, tater tots, protein shakes, and sugary, high-fiber, high-protein “health bars.”

There are a lot of cross-over items that span more than one category. Things such as trail mix – a supposedly healthy product that may include candied nuts or little chunks of chocolate in case you need to feed your sweet tooth while you’re hiking the High Sierras. There’s cereal, wheat or rice flakes and nuggets, often coated in syrup, icing, sugar, and artificial coloring and sweeteners.


There are canned and frozen fruit chunks, packed in syrup or coated and frozen with a sugary glaze. There are even vegetables that have been mixed with extra ingredients to make them more enticing than they might otherwise be.

Even the fresh vegetables in the produce section have been processed, cut up, mixed, and added to in order to save you from doing those menial chores yourself. Many children have never seen a head of lettuce or leaves of spinach that weren’t mixed in a plastic bag with a label that says “Spring Mix” or “Asian Slaw.”


Unless you’re a chemist, don’t bother reading the ingredients on most of what you find in a grocery store, first because you won’t understand them, but mainly because you don’t really want to know what is in a lot what you’re planning to put on the dinner table and in your body. I don’t really want to know, either, but I have an in-house expert who likes nothing better than to inform me of how may grams of sodium and how many grams of sugar and sugar-like components are in whatever snack I am about to put in my mouth.

I’m not looking down on any of these processed food-like items – except maybe baby carrots, which are just grown-up carrots cut up to look like what a baby carrots might look like.

I happily consume and appreciate what modern science and corporations have done to make our lives easier, such as low-sodium turkey bacon, which is a staple at my breakfast table. It may not be as tasty as fatty high-sodium swine bacon, but it is apparently healthier, so I do eat and even enjoy it.

The whole supermarket society is presided over by a corps of burned-out, fed-up employees, who – if tracked down and prodded – will help you retrieve the item from the back of the top shelf that only a pro-basketball giant could reach on his own.

Sometimes, because it is no longer considered a serious crime to steal, small, expensive items are locked behind closed glass cases that only an employee can open. Then, when the customer gets the item and examines it up close, he may decide he actually wants the similar one next to the one he got behind the same case. That never puts a smile on the employee’s face.

The employees at the store are the grocery store bureaucrats – much like government employees, except they can actually be fired if they step too far out of line.

The drama doesn’t stop when you finish at the check-out line. It continues right into the parking lot.

There are the people who have forgotten where they parked and are wandering up and down the various aisles, trying to identify their own vehicle – a task made harder by the fact that modern cars all look sort of the same.

There is a gauntlet of political hirelings collecting signatures for issues on which they have little information or understanding and bums looking for a handout.

There are the parents who let their children run wild through the slow, but potentially deadly, parking lot traffic.

There are the people who leave their shopping carts in the middle of an empty parking space, even though there is a corral for empty carts just a few steps away. These are usually the same people who can’t wait to get home to enjoy their snacks, so they throw the wrapping on the ground as they back out.

Then there are the parking lot heroes, those fine folks who take their own carts back to the corral, often picking up other carts along the way. They’re the same ones who help old ladies struggling to transfer their groceries from cart to car.

That’s who I aspire to be.

It may not be my ticket to heaven, but maybe – just maybe – it’ll make me a little bit proud of myself.

I can only hope.

– George Lee Cunningham

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