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Bigger and Blander: Grocery Shopping in America vs. Spain

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Growing up in Long Island, New York I never thought twice about routine tasks like going to the grocery store. I assumed everyone around the world bought their groceries the way my family and I did. We would go to a big-name brand supermarket (Walbaums, King Kullen, Pathmark, etc.) and buy enough food to last us for weeks. Anything from milk, chicken, eggs, lunchables, to fruit rollups were in our shopping chart. Most of the time, my family and I would only eat half of the groceries we bought, and the rest of the food would go to waste and stay in our cupboard for months or end up in the garbage. I never thought twice about my family’s food shopping and eating patterns because everyone around us ate and shopped the same way.

When I went away to college I knew one of the things I wanted to do in my four years was study abroad. I have always been interested in traveling outside of the country, but never had the chance to growing up. My third year of college I decided to spend four and a half months living and going to school in Barcelona, Spain. I was so excited to finally experience another culture and actually be able to say I lived in another country for a short period of time. However, I didn’t really take into consideration the changes I would have to make to my lifestyle living in another country.

The second day I was in Spain I decided to go to the local supermarket to buy some groceries. I assumed I would be going to a large supermarket (similar to ones in the U.S.) and go about my normal routine. When I arrived to the “Mercadona” it was not what I expected. I immediately noticed how small the market was and the limited food options that were available to purchase. I grabbed a mini-sized shopping cart and began to browse. I entered the produce section where I saw miniature sized fruits and vegetables. All I could think was “Why are these bananas and strawberries so small?!” When I finished shopping I went to the cashier to ring up my groceries. I noticed that the other people on line (local residents) had very little in their shopping carts. I felt silly when the cashier started ringing up my cart full of snacks and candy. After the cashier rang me up she asked if I wanted to buy a bag. I was confused as to what she meant. Where is the employee that bags my groceries for me? I then realized she was talking about buying a recycled/reusable bag that I will bring back and forth with me to the supermarket. Of course, I decided to buy one because I had no other option. However, I left the store thinking how bizarre that whole experience was.

A few weeks later, I began to think differently. Instead of thinking that the way America shops is “normal”, I started thinking the way Spaniards shop is far more efficient and environmental. I started to think about the amount of plastic that is wasted on bagging people’s groceries every day. I started to think about why America’s fruits are so much larger and taste blander than the fruit in Spain. What hormones and chemicals are being injected into my produce at home? These are things I never would have thought about if I didn’t study abroad. After I returned to the U.S., I decided to buy my own reusable bag to go grocery shopping with. To me, it makes so much more sense to reuse my recycled bag than wasting plastic bags every week. I also go to special supermarkets to buy organic fruits and vegetables. I thought the fruits and vegetables in Spain tasted much better and sweeter, even though they were smaller.

I’m extremely thankful for the time I spent abroad because it opened my eyes to the wasteful habits I had acquired growing up. I feel better about myself knowing there are little things I do every day to help the environment and live a more sustainable and healthy life. All it takes is opening your eyes and looking at life in another culture’s viewpoint, and you too can live a healthier and more sustainable life.

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