Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sometimes prices accurately reflect worth...

Nope, this post is not about Christmas shopping. It's about groceries, yes, yet again. Here in this part of Florida, Publix is the go-to supermarket for most. But there is also Harvest Food & Outreach, a small garage-like building not far from Publix that offers groceries at bargain-basement prices--and you don't have to buy in army-sized bulk, either!

So what's the catch?

First, you have to be a member. No problem. Like Costco or BJ's, you just sign up on the spot. Unlike those two megastores, there is no fee. Quite the opposite. You must be needy, or struggling not to be needy. On the membership application, they ask you to check off which form of government assistance you receive--my friend, who already had his membership, falls under disability--or, if I remember correctly, whether you fall within 20% of the poverty line. What a nice non-profit organization, right?

Well, this is where the second catch comes in. Most of the products on the shelves are past their expiration dates, some well past. Or the boxes have tears in them, giving rise to the suspicion that enterprising rats and roaches may have succeeded in forcing entry. While some products looked like they were rejected for superficial reasons, like crushed corners, smooshed lids, dented cans, the burning question I had was: Is it safe to eat this?
I asked a clerk why it's okay to eat something months past its expiration date. She didn't really answer the question but instead said that most of the food came from Publix and Walmart and other groceries after the products had been on their shelves past those companies' policies. Ok, but what do the expiration dates mean if you can disregard them for months? She said if I ate anything and there was a problem with it, I could come return it. Thanks.

My marina friend saw no problem with eating past expiration dates. He said he got most of his food from Harvest Food, and he couldn't tell the difference. He loved the place! As we went down the aisle, and he threw box after box of old cereal in his cart, pointing out the incredible deal (3 for $4!), I felt compelled to throw a box in for myself out of sheer solidarity. Then I started to discreetly scour everything for unexpired products. Bingo! Here was one box of UHT milk that didn't expire until 2011; there was a can of pears in light syrup that was good til 2012; here was a huge selection of Nestle Crunch and Twix and Kit Kat bags that were good til...hey! it's 4 for $2!

I got into the spirit of it. Bargains abounded, unrotten food hidden amongst them. I steered well clear of the fully cooked (and long expired) pork loin in the fridge--ewwww--and picked out some Pringles that were only a couple months expired. Ok, I'd try it. In fact, expiration dates were probably baloney marketing. Yeah! Just get whatever you want!

I filled the cart, along with my marina friend. My part of the bill came out to a puny $20. For lots of stuff. Mostly junk food, I have to admit, that I wouldn't otherwise buy. Still, it felt like a great deal, and I thought, again, what a great organization. I was a tourist there, but for people like my marina friend who are on small, fixed incomes, this was a necessity.

Back on the boat, I unpacked everything and decided to look up why expiration dates exist. Unfortunately, the wifi signal I rely on was on strike, and I was quickly developing internet rage, so I gave up and decided to settle for empirical information. I would sample my goods.

Well, the pears in the dented can were yummy. A few had some discoloration, but whatever. Next, I opened the Nestle Crunch and gasped in horror. What's normally a smooth medium brown bar was a chalky crumbly white corpse of a chocolate bar. Eh, probably just presentation, right? I bit into it...and didn't taste chocolate, but something more like...pineapple? Ok, the chocolate had gone off. I opened the can of Pringles Zesty Ranch (or something like that). No crunch at all, taste indeterminable. Without crunch, what good is a potato chip? Then I poured myself a bowl of cereal: Honey Bunches of Oats with Almonds (bought at Harvest Food) and lactose-free milk (already in the fridge, from Publix). A strange tinge of sourness but otherwise perfectly fine.

The next morning, I had another bowl of cereal, this time with the UHT milk I'd bought at Harvest Food, a brand I'd never heard of: Tabatchnik. A few hours later, I was sick and, as we used to say at work to explain without going into detail why someone couldn't come into the office, "I had a stomach thing." I looked around for the culprit and landed on the Tabatchnik milk. Curses! I turned against Harvest Food and started to think how messed up it was that they would sell potentially sickening food to poor people that the for-profit supermarkets had rejected! It was just like those lame supermarkets that don't let you take the shopping cart to the car! I had a whole rant and rave planned!

Then, when I went to console my tummy with some yogurt, I realized that the fridge was not as cold as it usually is. I looked at the electrics panel, and, sure enough, the switch for the fridge was parked somewhere between ON and OFF. Was the real culprit of my food poisoning the fridge? Everything inside was cool, not cold. Perhaps the lactose-free milk I'd had with my cereal the day before had become host to some nasty bacteria? The sour note of that bowl of cereal took on new significance. Or perhaps it was the UHT milk that had come off the same shelves as some very altered Nestle Crunch and Kit Kat? After all, more than 12 hours had gone by just fine after the first bowl of cereal, whereas only 1 or 2 had with the second one.

As much as I kind of wanted it to be the UHT milk, because selling rejected and cast-off goods from normal supermarkets to the needy just felt wrong somehow, it wasn't. It was my deadbeat fridge. Still, while I am willing to admit that there is some flexibility around "sell by" dates, since it turns out that  they indicate quality, not safety (p.s. the FDA requires expiration dates only on medicine and baby formula), I can't completely get rid of the feeling that products that aren't good enough for the non-needy shouldn't be considered good enough for the needy either. My friend might be okay with it (mind you, he loves bargains and shops at Publix and Albertson's for his fresh stuff), but as one needy woman puts it, Expired, castoff food is a slim form of charity.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:10 AM

    i've been eating expired food and taking expired medicine all my life and look at me!