The Grocery Store as a Classroom

Going to the Grocery Store at the beginning of each Challenge Week is one of the most salient experiences.  I am always surprised by the amount of time it takes to complete a task that I am accustomed to completing in 15 minutes or less.  Today it took me an hour and 15 minutes.  While walking to Giant, walking back and forth between Giant and the Dollar General Store to gather price information, and perusing the aisles the economics in my classes was coming to life.  For example:

1. This year as in years past we have allowed all participants to start the week with $10 and have the luxury of spending it all at once or sporadically through the week.  However, as I shop, I am reminded of the fact that Daryl Collins et al in “Portfolios of the Poor” drives home the fact that the income of those living on $2 a day is small, irregular and unpredictable.  Each participant in this exercise is guaranteed $10 from the start.  How would our choices change if we were to take away this predictability?

2. I did not buy carrots this year.  In years past, I have been able to buy 1 or 2 carrots.  However, at Giant the smallest unit I could purchase was 2lbs – a unit size I could not afford.  C. K. Prahalad’s advocacy of selling smaller sized units as a way of accessing and promoting the wealth of the poor in “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” is resonating right now.

3. I spent of tenth of my income on Animal Crackers and gave a significant amount of thought toward spending another tenth of my income on instant coffee.  I decided to forgo the instant coffee.  However, while deciding, I was thinking about Banerjee and Duflo “The Economic Lives of the Poor” and their discussion about how those living below $2 a day spend some of their limited income on empty calories, festivals, and intoxicants.  Animal crackers and coffee fit into those categories.

Maybe most importantly, the check-out line is also one of the few opportunities for me and other participants to interface with individuals outside of the bubble of the campus community.  Today, once again, it reassured me of the value of this experiential learning exercise (see past blogs for other check-out line moments).   I traveled back and forth between Giant and Dollar General looking for the best price on bread.  I assumed that the bread at Dollar General was of course $1.  I placed my loaf of bread, can of peanuts, bag of animal crackers, and 5 packs of Ramen on the counter.  She rang up $2 for the bread.  As I fought back the desire to explain the exercise I was engaging in, I asked if she had any cheaper bread.  “Maybe” she said, “take a look at the clover leaf”.  Moments like these may not give us an understanding of the choice calculus of those living on less than $2 a day; however, these moments do give us insight into the daily lives of the poor in America – an immensely valuable piece of knowledge that cannot be taught or acquired in a traditional classroom setting. 

I walked over grabbed the last remaining loaf.  She rang up the total before I even made it back to the counter.  It was not until I got back to the office (a 15 minute walk) and starting adding up my receipts that I realized she gave me the peanuts.

I have $3.82 left. 

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Thanks. – shawn

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