Where to get cheap and fresh fruits and veggies in Alexandria, VA?
January 28, 2012 12:20 AM   Subscribe

Grocery shopping in Alexandria, VA without a car and on a $200/month budget?

I live in Alexandria, VA around the Braddock Road metro. I know of three grocery stores within walking distance: Trader Joe's, the Whole Foods on Duke Street and the Giant on First Street (both seem barely walking distance to me.)

It's really important to me that I eat a couple of servings of fruits and vegetables a day. However, while browsing AskMeFi I've come across some definite downsides to buying produce at Whole Foods (this thread says vegetables are overpriced) and Trader Joe's (this thread says they're poor quality). I've been to the Giant on First and not only is it far, but the quality is pretty sad.

Does anyone have any suggestions for ways to get fresh produce on a budget around Alexandria? I realize that at $200 a month for groceries I need to be realistic as to what I can actually buy. I plan to buy processed foods only rarely and supplement the fruits and vegetables with cheap sources of rice, beans, etc. However, I'm not looking for organic or local produce in particular--just good quality vegetables and fruits that will stay fresh and edible over a reasonable period of time.

I've researched CSAs and most of what I've found either require picking them up at the farm (which I can't since I don't have a car) or they are too big for a single person, even for half-shares. Something that may work is Washington's Green Grocers and getting their small box bi-weekly, and I'd appreciate any other suggestions or advice.

I've considered renting a Zipcar occasionally and driving to Super H Mart, but I'm worried that the cost of renting a Zipcar will offset any savings I might find at ethnic supermarkets. I have the same concern with taking the metro to find other supermarkets in the DC area. I'd love to hear about any metro-accessible supermarkets or farmer's markets, especially on the blue/yellow/orange lines that have decent produce.

I guess my questions can be summarized as follows:

- Should I just suck it up and buy produce at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's despite cost or quality concerns?

- Do I save more money in the long run if I rent a Zipcar to drive out to ethnic supermarkets in VA?

- Do I save more money in the long run if I find a metro-accessible supermarket? (Any suggestions would be welcome!)

Thanks in advance!
posted by elisse to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can you bike? I did my grocery shopping for years on my bike with a couple pannier bags and a back pack.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 12:22 AM on January 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I don't have a bike, and don't plan on getting one since I'm leaving in a few months.
posted by elisse at 12:57 AM on January 28, 2012

I'm not in your area, but have bought plenty of produce from Trader Joe's in various locations over the years, and I've never had a problem with them before. I mean, check what you're buying to make sure that it's not out of code/bruised/growing spiders, but I haven't found that I'm more likely to have bad produce from there than I am from my local supermarket.
posted by MeghanC at 1:11 AM on January 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

I used to shop at the Harris Teeter on Duke Street, a few miles up from the Whole Foods. Its produce selection is fairly good, if a bit more expensive than Giant. You could probably bike from where you live, if you have panniers. The store is located right next to where the Holmes Run bike trail crosses Duke St., and there is a rack you can lock your bike to, and generally lots of other cyclists on the weekends.

If you take the Metro up to Pentagon city, there's a different HT within walking distance of the station. It's a bit more cramped than the one on Duke Street, but still nice. You might want to get some sort of handcart (aka an "old lady" cart); that's what a lot of people seem to have.

If you want to go to an H-Mart (and they do have awesome, cheap produce) it may be cheaper to take a taxi back and forth to the H-Mart in Annandale or the Super H-Mart in Dunn Loring rather than ZipCar, depending on how long you want to spend shopping there. Also, you should be able to take a bus, although it would obviously take a lot longer.

On preview, saw your comment about not having a bike and not being interested in getting one. That sorta makes the Duke St HT less attractive. I'll leave the information there, though, in case it's useful to someone else in the future.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:16 AM on January 28, 2012

It looks like there's a year-round farmers' market in that area on Saturdays. No idea what the selection will be like in the winter, though.

If you're on a limited budget, especially in the winter, I would consider frozen vegetables--green beans, broccoli, cauliflower (you'll need to go to Giant for that, WF & TJs don't carry it), green peas. Frozen green beans can be left in the fridge to defrost--they'll still have some crunch left. Frozen broccoli isn't bad either, if you steam or microwave it very lightly.
posted by needs more cowbell at 2:34 AM on January 28, 2012

I'd say your best bets are either Trader Joe's or the Harris Teeter at Pentagon City that Kadin2048 mentions. Renting a Zipcar or taking a cab will make a big dent in your budget, so the most economical options are taking a bus, the Metro, or walking. Definately get a handcart, otherwise it's almost guarenteed that at some point you WILL have busted bags of groceries all over the sidewalk.

I see you say you don't want to get a bike because you'll only be here a short time; could you BORROW one from a friend for your grocery trips, or get a cheap one at a Goodwill store? Finally, how about grocery DELIVERY? I don't know how much it costs, but Giant, for instance, has its Peapod home delivery service.
posted by easily confused at 3:28 AM on January 28, 2012

Many fresh fruits and veggies will last longer than a week which means you don't have to shop as often. Going less often might make taking a cab or zip car more attractive and will probably save money because you aren't buying as many impulse items. Alternately, can you find a friend or neighbor with a car who will let you ride along when they do their shopping?
posted by Flacka at 5:31 AM on January 28, 2012

Are you willing to take public transport? There's a Magruder's in Alexandria, and I'm pretty sure there's a bus from King Street Metro (1 stop from Braddock) that takes you within 1 min walk of the store (search google maps or AT for the route). I shop at one in Maryland a lot, and they have excellent produce at good prices. (It's seasonal, of course). Get yourself a cart, though; that's what most people around here do.
posted by bluefly at 5:53 AM on January 28, 2012

Actually, I just looked up reviews of that Magruder's in Alexandria, and they aren't very good (in comparison to the Maryland one which seems to have great ones). So maybe not the best place. I have been to the Harris Teeter in Pentagon City, and it's nice, so I'd follow Kadin's advice. Sorry!
posted by bluefly at 5:59 AM on January 28, 2012

I think the answer is to go to both whole foods and trader joes and just be aware of quality and price. For some stuff WF isn't that expensive. Also, the produce at trader joes can be fine, you just have to look carefully, because it's often packaged. There are also nice frozen options at each. The frozen asparagus at trader joes is usually pretty good and the frozen haricot verts at my whole foods are tasty and crisp. Good luck.
posted by mercredi at 6:03 AM on January 28, 2012

Skip the Alexandria Farmer's market - the produce isn't great quality, and is very expensive. Which might be worth it if the produce were good, but it isn't (browned broccoli, wilted and brown leafy greens, very bruised apples, etc).

Trader Joe's produce is hit or miss, and they rotate availability. They're moving away from being able to buy things in singles, and moving to big bags of things (bags of avocados, packages of peppers, sacks of sweet potatoes). Great if you're cooking a lot for a lot of people, but sucks if you're cooking for mostly yourself or a small group.

Whole Foods certainly has the best, but price is obviously much higher.

Skip the Giant on First St. altogether. It's very tiny and total crap.

Harris Teeter produce is good, but pricey. It's not much cheaper (if at all) than Whole Foods.

Shopper's Food Warehouse in Potomac Yards - cheap, and decent quality.

I would do one of these:
- buy your produce at Whole Foods, and cheaper non-perishables at Trader Joe's.
- Peapod grocery delivery (google around for coupon codes, and use your Giant Grocery Store savings card). I've found the produce from Peapod to almost always be excellent quality
- Take the bus to Potomac Yards, and shop at the Shopper's Food Warehouse. Produce is not as good as Whole Foods, but on par with Trader Joe's, and very cheap. In general, prices are the lowest of all
posted by raztaj at 6:06 AM on January 28, 2012

I live near a whole foods and am on a budget (I also live near a safeway, but it's just too grim to shop there very often). As others have noted, they do have frozen veggies. Their 365 brand is usually good quality and pretty cheap. The other way to hack HF is to stick with what's on sale that week. Sometimes it's not much, but sometimes it's substantially discounted from their normal (granted overly expensive) price/lb.

Also I love farmer's market, I like supporting local farmers, the food is fresh and of good quality, and it's more fun. But generally I've found it to be even more expensive than WF or at best the same. YLocalFarmersMarketMV, although I live in the same metro area as you, so probably not much different. Sometimes I still shop there for all the reasons stated above, but definitely not going to help with the budget.
posted by kaybdc at 6:11 AM on January 28, 2012

If Giant's Peapod delivery service goes to your area, it's really affordable and the produce is great.
posted by jgirl at 6:20 AM on January 28, 2012

Skip the Magruder's bluefly mentions: the cheaper prices are not worth their poor quality. (And I'm positive I've seen them re-wrapping & re-dating meat....)
posted by easily confused at 6:25 AM on January 28, 2012

In my experience, Trader Joes produce is fine if you select carefully in the store, and consume (or cook for later) within a day or two. If I were you, I'd go with Trader Joes and buy a combination of fresh and frozen produce. I've never noticed a problem with the quality of their frozen produce.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:30 AM on January 28, 2012

I know that MeFi is a place full of anti-amazon.com angst, but if you happen to be a student, you might be able to get a Prime membership for free, or really cheap ($40). Then you can order any dry or canned foods you want at a major discount (both a bulk discount and then 15% off for a "subscription" which you can cancel immediately). They'll come right to your door, which makes it easy to not have a car. All you need then is to pick up produce and things like milk.
posted by dis_integration at 6:34 AM on January 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you actually been to the Whole Foods to take a look at their prices? I'm not in your area, but I've been having trouble getting decent produce at my usual grocery chain here and last weekend went to WF for some fruits & veggies. Got a head of romaine, 3 red peppers, a cucumber, snap peas, a couple bananas, and something else I'm totally forgetting for less than $10. And their lettuce usually lasts me 2 weeks if I wash and spin it the same day I buy it.
posted by jabes at 6:50 AM on January 28, 2012

I don't know how convenient these are to get to you, but try H Mart or Grand Mart. They're both 'international' grocery stores, and the produce is dirt cheap, and incredibly varied. The only problem is the quality can be a bit iffy, so be picky about what you buy. I used to shop at H mart all the time for produce when I lived in Fairfax, and Grand Mart when I lived near Van Dorn Street.
posted by empath at 6:52 AM on January 28, 2012

I shop at the Old Town Trader Joes all the time, and have never noticed a problem with the quality of their produce. The choices aren't as extensive as Whole Foods, but for the most part its certainly cheaper.
posted by zara at 7:02 AM on January 28, 2012

I've used both Safeway and Giant's delivery service, and the produce has always been wonderful. At Safeway, if you pick a 4 hour delivery window, the delivery charge is about $5 including a fuel surcharge. Over the years, I've had to call customer service twice, and both times, I've gotten prompt refunds.
posted by amarynth at 7:08 AM on January 28, 2012

Learn the bus system and you'll have access to a lot more places. There's a Giant on glebe road that I shop st pretty regularly that has good produce and it's a stop on several bus lines and it's right across from the bike trail. The Shoppers in Pentagon Row mentioned earlier in the thread is another good bus and bike accessible choice.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 7:08 AM on January 28, 2012

It depends on what you get at Trader Joe's - I get produce there and have only had problems with fruit.

A lot of people complain about Whole Foods and I've found that they either usually don't actually shop there(regularly anyway) or they mostly buy prepared/packaged things. I don't think their produce is any more expensive on average than a Safeway. That's not to say that there aren't some really pricey things, but it's usually harder to find stuff. I usually try to buy what is on sale and I do pretty well - and that's usually seasonal stuff so it's a win-win. Fantastic quality - worth it to me and I shopped there on a grad student budget.

Not sure if you have any near you, but I also like the little organic markets like Yes! and MOM - they're all over Maryland so you might have one within walking distance and not realize it. They usually have pretty good quality produce and it can be cheaper than Whole Foods.
posted by fromageball at 7:56 AM on January 28, 2012

Take the Yellow Line to L'Enfant. Take the Green line to Eastern Market.

posted by matty at 8:58 AM on January 28, 2012

I also eat a ton of fresh fruits and veggies, and I get most of them at the Costco at Pentagon City, which is just a few metro stops from you. The membership will be a big upfront cost, but to be able to get a bag of really good avocados for 75 cents apiece, or a quart of blueberries for $4, or a half dozen salads worth of lettuce for $5, makes it worth it. If you buy too much to carry home (I usually take my bounty home on the metro in a grandma cart, but if you buy 12 rolls of paper towels, that might not work), get a cab or a zipcar home

In fact, if you want to go some time to see if you like it, MeMail me, and you're welcome to try out my membership some time when I'm going.
posted by decathecting at 10:35 AM on January 28, 2012

Take the Yellow Line to L'Enfant. Take the Green line to Eastern Market.

You take the blue/orange to Eastern Market or the red line to Florida Avenue Market.
posted by jgirl at 10:49 AM on January 30, 2012

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