Food Shopping in Jamaica

Food shopping in Jamaica, while having some resemblance to the American experience, can be challenging at times. The Jamaican supermarkets are laid out with aisles of packaged foods and general merchandise similar to the US. Around the perimeter of the interior is the meat, dairy and produce sections. Glaringly absent is the ever popular and ever busy deli department. The only cold cuts I have seen come in blister packs and a very limited variety. There aren’t any assortments of fresh salads or imported Greek and Italian olives. Whole kosher dill and sour pickles are but a memory to me. Missing, too, is the eye appealing and delicious variety of dessert offerings but most of all is the tantalizing aroma of chickens barbecuing. 

The variety and availability of many food items is not the same in Jamaica. If a shopper wants to be assured of having certain foods on a regular basis, it involves stocking ample supplies in ones own pantry. Now I’m not talking about specialty products but the everyday items people rely on. Take milk for example. Most milk in Jamaica is purchased in 1 liter boxes which have a nine month shelf life. Several times a year it seems, either whole or 1% milk is missing from the grocery shelf. There are two dairy farms on the island but neither of them can consistently provide milk to the public. It didn’t take me long to learn to horde this precious daily staple. The amount I keep in reserve has been expanded from a one week supply to a two month supply. If someone asks me if I’ve “got milk”, I want to be able to answer in the affirmative. 

One of my favorite meals is a nice large salad loaded with fresh vegetables on top of a bed of crisp iceberg lettuce. It has been at least six months since I have seen iceberg lettuce anywhere in Jamaica. Why? I don’t know. I’m left with local lettuce which looks similar to iceberg but the heads are smaller and the flavor is nearly nonexistent. Also missing from the produce section is sweet mouth watering corn on the cob, asparagus, peaches, and Macintosh apples.  

The dairy department lacks availability in many areas such as sour cream, cottage cheese, and cream cheese, but especially yogurt. There are two national brands of yogurt, a French brand, and Yoplait. Often any or all of these brands can be missing for two weeks or more. Philadelphia brand cream cheese was nowhere to be found for two to three months around the Christmas holidays. 

In all of Montego Bay, I have yet to find a butcher or meat cutter employed in any of the supermarkets. My limited knowledge of these meat departments tell me all or most of the meat comes in precut and frozen. The clerks simply package them in Styrofoam trays and stock the shelves. Ground beef or ground chicken appears to be made from the previous day’s leftovers. The selection of beef products is very limited and certainly is not prime cuts. Baking a ham or roasting a turkey can tax ones bank account. The least expensive and most popular items are chicken and fish. Some of the chicken parts on display I have never seen in the US such as chicken backs and chicken feet. 

The grocery department seems worse but it is probably because they have far more items than the other departments. Things like bouillon cubes, prunes, Kraft Italian salad dressing, coconut powder, (a must for rice and peas), cat food and certain varieties of dog food are scarce at times. My biggest complaint is the all too frequent missing Diet Pepsi. This product has a three month shelf life so I can’t stock as much of it as I do the box milk but I do manage to keep a dozen of 2 liter bottles on hand at all times. What good is rum without Pepsi? You can imagine how fast Coke sells out when all the Pepsi is gone. There is no way that Coca-Cola can produce enough to satisfy both coke and Pepsi appetites. 

The latest thing to disappear from the market is popcorn, not the microwave type with all its chemicals and fats but the kind you pop in the big blackened pot that had been in the family for years and is rarely used for anything else. The last brand I bought was from a major American food company with sales in Europe and the Americas but not one word is mentioned about popcorn on their website. I sure hope someone brings this favorite of mine back on the market very soon. 

Pricing is another issue. I’m not going to bore you with a list of food items and their cost. Basically, imported foods and prepared foods cost more than local goods. Baking a cake from Betty Crocker or Duncan Hines is more expensive than from the JFM, (the Jamaica Flour Mill) brand. Items imported from the US seem to be higher than goods imported from Central and South America or the Caribbean islands. Local foods are the least expensive. 

Weekly food ads are run in only one of the two national newspapers and consist of only one page. Coupons? Forget it! They don’t exist in Jamaica. How I miss the weekly chain store flyers delivered to my front steps loaded with pages and pages of tempting items. Gone are the hours of planning meals based on the appeal of sale prices. In Jamaica I take my list to at least two of the supermarkets and hope that I can purchase everything on it. Sometimes I get very lucky and come home with everything I need. 

Jamaica has three major grocery chains. Super Plus is the largest with thirty two outlets listed in the phonebook. Next is Progressive Grocers with about twenty one stores under several names such as Shopper’s Fair. The third chain is Hi-Lo with thirteen stores.  

There are also many smaller independent supermarkets. Their variety is similar to the chain stores but with higher prices. The most common stores are the small ones with less variety but offer the lowest prices. The vast majority of these shops, as they call them, are owned by the Chinese. Their prices are lower because of the lower overhead and fewer choices of goods. Most of these shops in Montego Bay are located around or near the two produce markets. The majority of them don’t offer the luxury of aisles to walk up and down to make your personal selections. Instead, you stand at a counter that has meshed chicken wire and place your order with the clerk behind the counter. When your order is completed, the clerk gives the cashier, who sits on an elevated, small booth, your order. The cashiers are usually the owner or trusted family member. All sales at these shops are cash only, another way of keeping their overhead low. Also available from these shops are bulk items such as cooking oil, rice, bleach and many other items. Parking for these small shops and many of the independent stores are nonexistent. 

There is a new player in Montego Bay called Mega Mart. Originating in Kingston, they are like the Costco wholesale clubs of the US, in that they offer a wide variety of both food and non food items. When they first opened, it was for members only. Today it is open to everyone and offers a discount to senior citizens on Wednesdays.

The following is a description of the accompanied photos to this article: 

Three of them are of the major supermarkets. The other photo shows the small shops on the left that line the road adjacent to the produce market. Normally this area is extremely busy from Thursday through Saturday. Later….   

About the author

John Casey