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'Secret Life Of Groceries' Shines A Light On Bounty's Dark Side

A pre-pandemic Seattle supermarket boasts row after row of prepackaged snacks. Even before the coronavirus pandemic put extra stress on grocery workers, keeping shelves stocked with the variety that Americans have come to expect took a hidden toll on producers, distributors and retail workers, says author Benjamin Lorr.
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A pre-pandemic Seattle supermarket boasts row after row of prepackaged snacks. Even before the coronavirus pandemic put extra stress on grocery workers, keeping shelves stocked with the variety that Americans have come to expect took a hidden toll on producers, distributors and retail workers, says author Benjamin Lorr.

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly heightened our awareness of our food supply — and the grocery stores we visit to stock up. Grocery workers became even more essential in March and April, as many of the rest of us were sent home to work or were laid off.

But how much do most customers know about what really goes on behind the scenes in our local supermarkets — now or before the coronavirus pandemic? What's gained and lost as all that food makes its way to the shelves?

Author Benjamin Lorr spent five years looking into that as he studied all aspects of American supermarkets — from the suppliers, distributors and supply routes to the workers in the retail outlets themselves. In the reporting for his new book, The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket, Lorr met with farmers and fieldworkers and spent 120 hours straight driving the highways with a trucker as she made her multistate rounds. He worked the fish counter at a Whole Foods Market for a few months and went to trade shows to learn about entrepreneurs who were trying to break into the industry. He also traveled to Asia to learn about commodity fishing — finding human rights violations along his journey.

The result is an intense, immersive, humorous and sometimes shocking portrait of the modern American supermarket, which for all its abundance and convenience leaves the reader with concerns about the insatiability of American appetites and how the markets can be a force for good and bad.

Shots interviewed Lorr from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Your book is subtitled The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket. For all their plentitude, our giant grocery stores mask a great deal of human and animal suffering.

Yes! Here is this institution we spend 2% of our lives in, so routine we often take it completely for granted. And yet, if you stop to think for even a moment, you realize it is completely unprecedented in the human experience. The grocery store is a miracle. It offers a continuous, dreamlike bounty of products at prices that get lower each year, even as the quality gets higher and higher. And as a customer, this bounty all appears completely frictionless, like some suburban American birthright. Of course, from the inside, it is the opposite of frictionless. It requires tremendous power to maintain. And when you scratch the surface of that power, you realize there is something slightly menacing underneath it. And if you scratch further, you get suffering — from our factory-farmed animals to the many workers in our food supply chains.

Far too many Americans suffer from paradoxical afflictions — food insecurity and health conditions related to obesity, like diabetes and heart disease. How do our supermarkets contribute to these problems?

It's a great question. But to answer, I'd almost flip it. Because it's not that the supermarket contributes in a uniquely malevolent way — it merely echoes other structures in our society. So, for me, the question is "What can the supermarket teach us about our responses to these diseases that typically get overlooked?"

And, again, I think this starts with what the supermarket does really well. Rather than respond to our mouthed pieties, the industry caters to our actions, working very hard to provide a few key values that we select at the checkout counter again and again: convenience, low price and choice. And by choice, I mean something very particular — food options that allow us to express meaning. That is, food that allows us to demonstrate who we want to be — whether that is worldly and sophisticated, thin and athletic, decadent and indulgent, ecologically virtuous, connected to our ancestors, distinct from our kin, etc., down the line of human aspiration.

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Now, to circle back to your question: We know that food insecurity, noncommunicable disease and poverty track closely. But our public health responses could benefit by mimicking the grocery store, focusing less on a predetermined idea of what people should do and more on what they actually need and want. Poverty is multidimensional. There is financial poverty, i.e. the lack of wealth we are all familiar with. But there is also poverty of time. And poverty of choice. And rather than being distinct, all those different forms of poverty compound. And they parallel the very things grocery excels at serving.

So simply offering cheap vegetables from a CSA is not enough. Nor is pummeling food-insecure folks with "education" about the "right" foods going to flip a switch. Very often that switch has long been flipped, but there are other barriers getting in the way.

To get more concrete, I'd say that means supermarkets are going beyond merely offering affordable healthy options, into affordable healthy options that are also convenient, grab 'n' go, ready-to-cook, pre-made or in individual servings for a kid left on their own while a busy parent is working a second job. Similarly, it means recognizing that "health food" all too often expresses a value set that doesn't dovetail with people who are actually poor.

I was surprised to learn that food quality and taste are not the leading criteria that supermarket employees consider when stocking their shelves.

Yes! And maybe not even the third or fourth qualities! Again and again, when talking both to food entrepreneurs working to get their product on the shelf or supermarket buyers evaluating a product to add to their mix, they'd say things like, "Stop focusing on taste — rookie mistake," or "Stop thinking about this as food — this is a 'food product.' " And they didn't mean that in a sneering, holier-than-thou, "Velveeta is not cheese" sense. They mean that a grocery item needed to excel as a retail product before its identity as food even mattered to them. So qualities like gross margin, stability of the underlying commodities in its ingredient list, shelf life, packaging, availability in a continuous manner — these are what got a buyer's attention. Far more important than knockout flavor.

Health certifications for food, like "gluten-free" or "non-GMO," are laden with compromises that consumers are not likely aware of. How can we be better, more informed shoppers?

The audit process that undergirds most food certifications — from "non-GMO" to "fair trade" — is deeply flawed. I think the simplest answer here, from a consumer perspective, is not one people want to hear: Shrink the supply chain. These problems accumulate from lack of visibility in a supply chain that has grown enormous and complex from serving the needs of a supermarket. Buying from sources you implicitly trust, not ones you need dubious proof of that trust, is the way to go. That means local, direct from the farm.

And let me say, farmers are ready to set up these relationships. I get my pecans from a single family farm, New Ground Orchards, that I trust. Do I need to see a list of their certifications? No.

Though we profess to care greatly about the provenance of the foods we eat, price seems to be the main driver of our choices. This can have deleterious effects on laborers like farmhands or fishermen.

Yes, again and again, labor is the place where the industry can extract "efficiencies." It really fits together with what we have been talking about previously. To become a global commodity, you need to meet all sorts of certifications and standards just to gain entry — safety standards, environmental standards, packaging, shipping and volume standards — and a lot of these can be tracked empirically in ways that are much more difficult with labor. Then, once you are trapped by these fixed costs, every few years your buyer comes and asks for a lower price, as that buyer is competing with other outlets back home. If you are a producer looking at your cost structure, trying to meet your buyer's demands, labor is often the place where you have control. And so it is the place where cuts occur.

The result, of course, when translated into human lives, is devastating. Humans are adaptable and can adapt to misery when they are desperate. For me, a key part of the book is helping readers see the connections on a human level, elevating the "out of sight, out of mind" voices at the bottom of the chain into a visible place.

As part of your research, you worked as a "team member" at the Bowery Whole Foods in New York City. You relate difficulties among your fellow workers in feeling valued as team members.

I was really surprised by the ways these minimum-wage jobs have changed. I've worked a lot of minimum-wage jobs over the years, but I worked them 20 years ago or more in high school and right after college. So I had a memory of them that was almost tinged by nostalgia. But just like everywhere else in the chain, labor in retail has become more "efficient." Industrywide practices like variable scheduling, on-call scheduling, just-in-time scheduling — where employees don't have a fixed schedule, but rather one that varies week to week by up to 40% or who only receive their schedule a few days in advance — have devastating effects. You can't get a second job, because there is no schedule to schedule around. You can't arrange child care, and your take-home pay swings wildly with the changes in hours worked.

And, of course, given our growing wealth divide, these jobs are no longer "high school" jobs but careers for middle-aged adults. So the nostalgia I and many people hold can be actively harmful when grappling with the reality and empathy for others.

You also embedded with a long-haul trucker to see what it's like to bring food to market. The freedom seemingly offered by life on the road made me think more of Sisyphus endlessly rolling a boulder uphill. And it's even tougher for women drivers.

Yes. Trucking is this enormous profession — 10.7 billion tons of freight per year, the No. 1 form of employment in the majority of states — that serves as a literal circulatory system for our economy. And yet, the life of the trucker has been systematically degraded. In the 1970s, trucking was this true middle-class profession — blue-collar, outlaw maybe, but also deeply stable. Over the last decades, that has all changed. Truckers now work to create twice the output at 40% less in wages. Many are caught in a debt peonage they call "sharecropping on wheels," a descriptor that seems overblown until you hear the stories.

And you can see the effects of everything we've talked about here in their lives. The trucker I rode with for the book was racked with health problems, suffering from many of the noncommunicable diseases we started off talking about. Yet this was not the result of lack of education. She knew what it meant to eat healthily and talked about wanting to "go paleo." Yet in the book it almost reads as a joke. The demands of her job, the extremely variable scheduling, the sedentary nature of the profession, the lack of food options at the truck stops — it all conspired to make health an impossible bar for her.

My friend makes his own barbecue sauce — we like to say he should bottle it and sell it. But getting shelf space in our local supermarket is a lot harder than any hobbyist can imagine.

I'd say, "Good luck," but then suggest that before investing any of his own money, he do a real gut check about how important this is to him. And maybe read my book. The entrepreneur I followed, Julie Busha, who was marketing a delicious condiment called Slawsa, disabused me of any idea this was to be easy. Julie was one of the hardest-working, most intelligent people I've ever met, and yet as a small-business woman, she was extremely vulnerable to an industry geared to dealing with much bigger players (or those with easy access to venture capital). Most people don't know that supermarkets make a significant amount of their profit directly from these entrepreneurs — i.e., extracted through direct fees, like a landlord leasing space. And so at every stage, Julie was met with demands for payments — for shelf space, for free product, for advertising, for demos. Julie kept moving forward, but it was like watching a hurdler.

Do you see ways supermarkets could do better by their customers?

In the book, I talk with a retail architect, a brilliant guy, Kevin Kelley, who talked about the intricate ways he helps stores create meaning for customers. But this is rarely — if ever — applied to people who are food insecure. What does a consumer in the South Bronx or San Joaquin Valley want to express? How can we craft messages around healthy food that will speak to their cultural values, as opposed to a Marion Nestle/Michael Pollan paradigm? If you provide all that, I am sure they will get snatched off the shelves. And I am sure people will become healthier for it.

John Henning Schumann is a doctor and writer in Tulsa, Okla. He hosts StudioTulsa's Medical Mondays on KWGS Public Radio Tulsa. Follow him on Twitter: @GlassHospital.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 9, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
An earlier headline misstated the book's title as Secret Life of Supermarkets. The title is The Secret Life of Groceries.
John Henning Schumann, M.D., is an internal medicine physician and writer (http://glasshospital.com). He has contributedto Slate,The Atlantic,Marketplace, and National Public Radio’s health blog,Shots.
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