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I've been trying, ever since I first walked into one, to figure out exactly what I think of Trader Joe's. The place has several obvious positive features:  

- In general, when something they carry seems like something I would like, I do end up liking their execution of it.  

- The prices are almost always decent, and sometimes dramatically lower than elsewhere.  

- The people who work there seem to be having fun.  

- To the extent that you can believe packaging, the people who run the engine seem to also be having fun, and maybe even to be genuinely interested in delivering interesting food to interested people.  

- Within the structural constraints of the chain and its branding, they do seem to lean away from over-processed garbage and toward organic principles.  

But I also have two huge nagging misgivings:  

- At the highest level, the place seems overwhelmingly biased towards a relationship to food that is more about shopping than cooking. It is possible to buy some ingredients for conventional cooking there, but that is clearly not the store's focus or the core of its personality. The bulk of the store's physical and mental space is devoted to pre-fabricated whole or partial meals. Calling this a "grocery store" seems subtly disingenuous to me, and to the extent that it participates in a shift in how people think about buying and consuming food, and disengage from the most basic involvement in its preparation, it may qualify for me as part of what could ultimately be a socially destabilizing problem. If so, then its other apparent virtues become elements of its insidiousness, and just serve to make it a more dangerous influence.  

- Even if I believe that the chain is pushing the right direction from processed and manipulated towards whole and organic, it has opted out, from its very credo and premises, from the less visible but equally critical movement from global back to local. I'm in no position to assess the chain's fair-trade practices, but no matter how fairly it treats individual producers (and pervasively low prices don't suggest that producers' welfare is an overriding concern), the cost-motivated flattening of source geography via fossil-fuel cargo-movement is a huge hidden aspect of the First World's disproportionate drain on whole-world resources. Probably Trader Joe's is no worse than any major conventional supermarket chain in this regard, but it may not be any better, and no better may not be good enough.  

So my provisional moral precedence still goes like this:  

- Best: what you grow yourself. This year, for us, this meant a little lettuce and a few herbs. We did a little better last year, and aspire to do much better some day.  

- Best for the rest: buying directly from local specialists. We joined a CSA program from a nearby organic farm this year, and that now seems to me like the most basic possible step, and one that should make us question the viability of any area where it isn't available, or where there isn't at least a thriving farmers' market. Local butchers, fishmongers, bakers, farm stands, maple-syrup producers, ice-cream makers. The closer you can get to the source, the better.  

- Good and necessary: a principled local co-op. If it doesn't make you roll your eyes at least three or four times per trip, it probably isn't principled enough. If it feels obliged to label turkey sausages "non-vegan", it may be too principled (but probably not). Keys: local, organic, whole, seasonal, wild, fresh, anything-free and, where all else fails, recycled.  

- Good and worthy: a big company with a conscience. The sizes of business and conscience tend to react in warily inverse proportions, but maybe this just makes the exceptions more deserving of our support. From my extremely limited perspective, Whole Foods seems like one of the Good Companies (and you can't eat Apples).  

- World-expanding: anywhere the people who didn't grow up eating Doritos shop. I don't have the tools to evaluate the social responsibility of grocery stores that operate in foreign languages and/or cultures, but absent obvious abuses I'm comfortable presuming that diversity is inherently desirable independent of other factors. Around here this mostly means Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Latin American grocers, Indian spices, the odd European boutique, and the occasional adventure in Market Basket's international combat shopping.  

- Trader Joe's. The suspicion of flaws is better than the simple certainty of corruption, at least.  

- Anywhere else. I am fully aware that my blanket hatred of all standard American supermarket chains marks me as an ungrateful elitist, and I am comfortable with that. If a cat isn't planning to shit on it, I don't want to buy it from anything owned by Ahold, Albertsons, Kroger or anything-Mart.  

Today's lunch: bread from Trader Joe's; peanut butter, jam and fruit from Whole Foods. Not ideal, but acceptable.  

Today's prayer: Goodbye, Ramona, sleep in purer sunlight. 1988-2005, and I was lucky enough to be around for the last few, and now I am a cat person.
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