Grocery shopping in a food desert

Emma Stoffel

After being a student at Washington and Lee for two years, I have come to realize that finding good, fresh food in Lexington is a little hard to come by. In fact, Rockbridge County is considered a “food desert” by the American Nutrition Association due to its lack of food available for the greater population of Rockbridge. After hearing about this, I was inspired to write about all the grocery stores available to us in or near Lexington and to rank them to see which one does the best job in terms of providing fresh produce.

The process went as follows: I went to every grocery store within a reasonable distance in Lexington and observed only their produce section. These grocery stores included Kroger, Food Lion—in both Lexington and Buena Vista—and Walmart. The produce section was ranked on a scale of 1-5 based on 6 categories: overall appearance (how did the overall presentation of the produce look? Was it inviting and appealing?), freshness (how was the quality of the food? Was it fresh and good quality? Were there any items that should not have been out for sale?), layout (was the food laid out in a way that made sense? Was it easy to navigate?), variety (were there a lot of options to choose from? Was the selection limited?), quantity (were the items out for sale properly stocked? Were the shelves mostly bare?) and price (were the items sold at a decent price for what they are worth? How expensive would it be to shop there?).

The score was given based on two combined factors. The first is the comparison of each grocery store against the others. The second factor evaluates each establishment on a scale of comprehensive quality, in which a 5 is excellent and a 1 is very poor. The sums were then added up for an overall score.

Kroger: 17.5/30

Overall Appearance: 3 – I hate to say it, but the impression of Kroger is not too great. There was a smell like some- thing was rotting as soon as I walked in and the produce section is dimly lit with an orange-yellow tint. However, the produce section is kind of like a reverse Picasso painting; from far away, I was a little nervous, but up close it was not too bad. The good parts and the bad parts cancel themselves out for an average score of 3.

Freshness: 2.5 – The quality of food at Kroger is really a hit or a miss. I bought strawberries that were really good, but their lettuce looked atrocious. Not to mention, when I went the other day, they had wilted owers on display for people to buy. I also bought grapes that were not ideal; they had a weird taste and many were bruised. Overall, Kroger’s quality could be so much better, but it’s not totally awful.

Layout: 3 – Kroger had an average layout. It was not hard to get around and find everything, but I did feel a bit crammed at times trying to get around other customers.

Variety: 4 – There was a lot of dif- ferent produce to buy at Kroger. Everything on the shelves could contribute well to a diverse meal. They even sold two different kinds of avocados, which Idid not nd at any other store.

Quantity: 4 – Whatever was put out to sell was in high stock, which is good. If you wanted to buy apples, for example,there were plenty to look through to find the best ones.

Price: 1 – Comparatively, Kroger had by far the most expensive food items, which was simply outrageous for the quality of food you are getting. Take the grapes I bought, for example: I paid $8.00 for them, and they de nitely werenot worth $8.00. I found that the prices at Kroger are as much, if not more expensive than, high quality food stores like Whole Foods. If you are looking to save money, I would go here only out of necessity.

Food Lion (Lexington): 15/30

Overall Appearance: 2 – The Food Lion in Lexington has probably the smallest produce section I have ever seen. It was literally a tiny corner off the side of the store with barely any variety. However, it was better lit than Kroger and there was no smell, so that is a plus.

Freshness: 3 – What was put out to be sold was pretty decent. Everything looked fresh and appealing. Not many complaints there, except the bananas that were out were extremely green and probably would have taken a solid week to ripen.

Layout: 2 – This was not hard for the store to mess up considering it was so small, but Food Lion lost points here because it was so small and should be bigger in order to accommodate more fresh produce.

Variety: 1 – Again, this produce section was the smallest I have ever seen as Food Lion put out the bare minimum of produce for people to buy. In other words, there was one variety of apples, one brand of bananas, one type of toma- toes and one brand of berries—only one of everything. Thus, if you are looking for a diverse meal, the Lexington Food Lion is not the place for you.

Quantity: 3 – What was available for customers to buy was well stocked, so that was something done well, but again, there was so little variety.

Price: 4 – For the quality of the food, the Food Lion hands down had the best prices. For example, limes at Kroger cost 89 cents each, whereas they cost 39 cents at Food Lion. Strawberries were $1.30 less expensive at Food Lion in comparison to Kroger. Food Lion was definitely the place to save the mostmoney.

Food Lion (Buena Vista): 22/30

Overall Appearance: 4 – The Food Lion in Buena Vista was definitely the underdog of the group. The produce section was well stocked, temperature controlled and pleasant to walk through. There was a little archway I walked through to get to all the produce, which is a cool aesthetic touch. I was both shocked and impressed by the Buena Vista Food Lion and definitely think it isworth the drive to give it a try.

Freshness: 3 – Most of the produce was very fresh and looked appealing,but there were definitely cases in whichthat was not true. For instance, the apples looked pretty good, but the moldy clementines for sale were a major turnoff. However, in this case good canceled bad for an average score of 3.

Layout: 4 – The layout of the place was good, no complaints there. Everything was in the right place to create aow that was easy to navigate.

Variety: 3 – The variety of the place was okay. There was some diversity of vegetables and fruits, including herb plants for sale, which I really liked, but there were also no avocados or fresh garlic, which was a bummer.

Quantity: 4 – Everything was well stocked, which was much appreciated.

Price: 4 – The prices were the same as the other Food Lion in Lexington, soagain, they were great. Definitely thebest of all the places I went, in terms of price.

Walmart: 15/20

Overall Appearance: 2 – The overall experience of shopping the produce section of Walmart was extremely bleak. Produce was placed into crates and the overall aesthetic was like that of a post-apocalyptic shelter. I was not a fan of the layout or the available produce; the effort on Walmart’s side seemed to be severely lacking.

Freshness: 3 – The quality of the produce was both good and bad. I was neither pleased nor disgusted; in fact, I just felt as bleak as the layout looked. It almost deserves a 2, but there were some redeeming parts that were good including a section where all the ingredients to make guacamole were laid out together and mangos that looked really tasty.

Layout: 2 – The layout was awful. Not only were things placed in crates, necessitating inconvenient reaching, the crates also blocked the prices of the items. You could not tell how much items cost unless you either moved the crates or stood on your tippy-toes to read the prices. I was not a fan of thelayout in Walmart; it was definitely the worst.

Variety: 4 – There was actually a lot of variety at Walmart, but not really in a good way. For example, there were drag- on fruits for sale, which does not make a lot of sense considering the greater population of Rockbridge County is probably not going to Walmart to buy dragon fruits, but hey, if you are looking for diversity—especially for tropical fruits—Walmart did a pretty good job.

Quantity: 2 – Walmart’s quantity was next to barren when compared to the other stores. There were only about 6-7 apples left in the crates and just a few onions, so basically, all the staples for produce were really low in stock. I was disappointed with the quantity of produce Walmart put out, especially because the items that no one was really buying, like the dragon fruit, were high in stock, whereas the apples, a staple, were almost gone.

Price: 3 – The price of produce at Walmart was between that of Kroger and Food Lion, which is why it got a score in between the two. The prices at Walmart were still much cheaper than Kroger and only a little bit more expensive than Food Lion—about 30 cents to $1.00 more, depending on the item—so Walmart did not do too bad in that regard.

Overall, I was surprised by how lacking our grocery selection is here in Rockbridge County. The best store I went to was not even in Lexington, which is disappointing. Many people do not value produce as important items to buy for their diet, even though they really should. But when the produce of the stores is either very expensive or not great quality (or both!), it is hard for people to want to buy fresh produce. Thus, the food desert here desperately needs an oasis.