Smile Politely

Upsetting the grocery cart

(Here’s a map denoting the locations of supermarkets and organic groceries in Champaign-Urbana. Photoshop by Molly Poganski.)

Last week, Smile Politely received an email informing us of a petition that asks Trader Joe’s to open a store in Champaign-Urbana. The petition is well written, and the enthusiasm for high quality, “natural and organic foods” is laudable, but we’re not sure that petitioning a company — a multi-billion-dollar ($8.5 billion in revenues last year) national chain — is realistic, or even the best approach. We fully support the petitioners’ desire for more grocery options in our area; however, we think there are other, more suitable solutions.

First of all, the petition includes Urbana as a possible location. But if what the petitioners say is true, that all they want is access to “natural and organic foods,” Urbana is already covered, not only with its organic, natural foods groceries, but also the Farmers Market that begins in early spring and lasts through late autumn. Champaign has much more limited options, and the walk-and-bikeability of any of the supermarket options leaves a lot to be desired. (And the small whole foods section in the County Market on West Kirby doesn’t count.) The opening of the County Market at 4th and Springfield was a boon to Campustown grocery shopping, and there are several ethnic and specialty groceries located on and near the perimeter of Campustown, but there’s still a large grocery void in downtown Champaign and points west.

Our opinion is that Champaign badly needs what Urbana already has: a locally-owned grocery store that carries as much locally grown, high-quality, organic, reasonably-priced food as it can, located near the center of town. In other words, Champaign needs its own version of Common Ground Food Co-op or Strawberry Fields.

When residents living in west Champaign want locally-grown, organic food, they must spend up to 30+ minutes (round-trip, depending on how far west they live) in their car to get it. A grocery with organic, local foods in, say, Champaign’s downtown area would cut that drive, and the gas expense, in half. It’s true that the North First Street Farmers Market is an option, but that market is much smaller than Urbana’s, and is open on Thursdays, from 3:00–7:00 p.m. only. As convenient as that may be for residents who live in downtown Champaign, it is not a reasonable option when shopping for a week’s worth of food for a family after a long day’s work. Moreover, the season for this market is much shorter than the one in Urbana (June 7–September 6).

Rather than invite yet another national, corporate grocer to join an already crowded field of chains (Schnucks, County Market, WalMart, Meijer, Target, Aldi), we’d prefer local growth, expansion, and cooperation. We would love to see expansion of both space and hours of the First Street Farmer’s Market (and weekend hours); we’d encourage and promote a second Strawberry Fields store; and we’d applaud a competing co-op to Common Ground. Also, many of us enjoyed and miss Persimmons Grocery — the store in downtown Champaign that Thad Morrow opened next to bacaro years ago. We’d love to see one of our downtown restaurants make another attempt at that fine idea: a local, organic grocery (even a type of organic convenience store).

The petitioners have begun a conversation worth having. Though we may not agree with their solution, we do agree that Champaign is lacking in good and convenient grocery choices, especially when compared with its neighbor to the east.

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