Safeway vs. Trader Joe's: The Georgetown Student Shopper

Note the €1 kilo of kiwis!
While in Strasbourg, my host mother provided me with breakfast every day and dinner four times a week. The rest was up to me, and quite honestly it was the first time in my life where I really had to buy groceries and plan out meals for myself, all by myself, for an extended period of time. For the most part, this was a great success, and I had a lot of fun. Pretty quickly, I found that Strasbourg had several great grocery stores that constantly had pretty good deals - great food I'd never seen at home or great prices I'd never seen at home. My favorite example would probably be the big delicious pineapples available from Côte d'Ivoire: I bought several for myself during my time in France, only for €1 or €1.50 apiece (US$1.50-$2.25). In the U.S., I've never seen pineapples sold for less than around five dollars.

France loves Alaska salmon!
More importantly, however, I learned to really enjoy grocery shopping and to do it for myself. (See the post Oh How I Love Grocery Shopping.) In the previous two years, my girlfriend did a lot to push me in the right direction, especially when it came to cooking: I was hopeless before we started dating, but once cooking became a wonderful "couple activity" for us, I'd say I've improved immensely. Strasbourg, though, was my big opportunity to do things on my own.

So what happened afterward? Well, I decided - after considering many factors - that this semester at Georgetown I would be going sans meal plan, meaning having to take care of all my groceries and all my cooking, all the time.

I'd say my grocery philosophy comes down to two things: nourishment and price. The two have to be balanced of course, and the two have to be understood in all their complexity - nourishment made up of healthiness as well as filling-ness, and price made up of sales, brand comparisons, and also price-per-item and price-per-unit-of-weight-or-size considerations. Basically, I want to keep my diet cheap, varied, simple and healthy - and of course enjoyable. I am very much a grocery person: So far this semester I've never ordered out, and I've only bought a sandwich twice. (I get the impression other students order out a bit more often...)

Georgetown Safeway
Thus we come to the question at hand: Where does a Georgetown student get their groceries? In Strasbourg I found many great grocery stores, and - just as important - the city was compact and the public transport awesome, so I had no trouble going anywhere. I could even get groceries in another country! DC, on the other hand - and especially the Georgetown neighborhood - is no mass transit paradise. (As far as I know, none of America is.) The Hoya is therefore faced with three options: Safeway, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe's.

  • Safeway is the most accessible option, as a campus shuttle goes by there pretty regularly on weekdays up to 7pm, and it's the closest to walk to anyway (one mile from where I live on campus). At first I thought I'd be getting all my groceries from Safeway, since my family has the membership card and I get all the yellow-tag deals (also saving them gas money at home). I thought that being the more "mainstream" store and not as "upscale" or "organic" as the other two options would mean that Safeway would have consistently lower prices. We'll see about that in a minute.
  • Whole Foods, for the most part, backed up my assumption. It's accessible by the same shuttle as Safeway, but it takes a bit more walking. I've been in there a few times, mostly when my girlfriend visited DC last year. Going back this semester, though, with Safeway prices in my head, it was really difficult to find anything that was cheaper by comparison. Granted, there are lots of things at Whole Foods that I think are and would be delicious, but I think my shopping there will be quite infrequent.
  • Trader Joe's is a big contrast with both of the others, and it really blew away my presumptions. It's a bit over a mile's walk away (no shuttle) and although I had gone there once during freshman year, in the meantime I had forgotten the price ranges entirely. The first time I went back there, I realized, "Wow, some of these prices are super-huge steals!" Eggs, bread and cereal, for example, were all significantly cheaper than at Safeway, and a lot of the prices were just about matched.
Georgetown Whole Foods
I think the best way to go is to balance my shopping: Safeway and Trader Joe's compliment each other, and I think I can simply alternate my shopping trips between them and cover all the bases well. There are other questions one might pose, however, namely: What about environmental considerations? going organic? the ethical practices of the grocery chains? The first incarnation of this post, in fact, was going to be about the dilemma of shopping at Safeway. The corporation is not known for treating its workers well, and it seems Whole Foods and particularly Trader Joe's have better records.

Trader Joe's, Foggy Bottom
Before starting a Safeway embargo, however, I think there are a lot more factors to consider: grocery stores don't generally make very high profit margins, after all's said and done, and it varies greatly according to item and department. On the whole, most of my grocery money is probably going to the many producers, processors and distributors involved with every product, as well as their employees and the employees of the store. When it comes to buying organic or thinking about the environment, I don't have much to say, other than that you should BUY ALASKA SALMON. Otherwise, though, I think the best practice is to balance your groceries and balance your stores, all according to the food that fits you best.