I enjoyed reading this compact book about the history and current issues revolving around our food supply. Grocery Story is not a big book, but it is a pretty intense read, full of data and case histories, so I had to read it a couple chapters at a time and then set it down to digest and cogitate for a day or two. Steinman has “been there and done that” in the food world, and in many ways this book parallels my own lifelong interest in food.
In the present format of retail food all over America, stores strive to wring as much marginal profit from their goods by working with the food giants to buy products that give them an economic edge. “Be Attentive” are the watch words for anyone entering a big box grocery store, is what my dad told me many years ago when he was still working for A&P, one of the grocery giants that Steinman writes about in his book, “Make a list. Be on guard, stay aware, and don’t give in to aimless wandering down the aisles unless you have to get something on your list. All of the fresh food is on the perimeter of the store and so long as you stay out there, you can do all right.” Things like shelf position, aisle location, product packaging, and forcing us to “hunt” for a product we want, are all ways we are manipulated once we walk into a store. When you add advertising and clever packaging, it is tough to feel like we have any discretion or connection to our food supply.
The current COVID-19 pandemic highlights some important issues if the so-called supply chain is broken. Presently, due to reduced demand from the restaurant and institution food businesses, big industrial agri-businesses are dumping milk and plowing under crops that have no destination. Steinman gets down into the weeds on how this “system” operates and how it is dysfunctional and unsustainable. As I read this book, I could not help reflect on how the current pandemic has put a point on why massive industrial farms linked to a global transportation network based on fossil fuels is not a local consumer-centric enterprise. It too often does not serve the needs of the individual, their family or their community. I must tip my hat though to our local grocers, which have done a pretty darn good job of staying open, rationing scarce products, and providing a safe environment for shoppers, including online shopping. So, I’d like to give a shout out to them and their employees!
The second half of Grocery Story focuses on the good news, which is that there is a long history of an alternative way to get food to our tables and it has been operating successfully for a very long time. Steinman writes elegantly and emphatically about the motivating factors for starting and sustaining a local food co-op, and he has really done his research on the subject. He uses several case studies to explain how a co-op works, the role it can play in community health and well-being, and also serve as an incubator of small business and truly sustainable local farming. Providing good jobs for our community is another really positive result of having a co-op. Steinman highlights how many of the endless opportunities to make community connections over food can be such a positive force locally. How the co-op engages in its community is only limited by the owners’ imagination.
I highly recommend this book to all of our co-op members as an interesting read on grocery store and food supply history and evolution, and the options available to us regarding how it gets from the farm to our kitchen. Shopping at a co-op is really fun and can also anchor a community, generating positive energy that radiates throughout. The Silverton Food Co-op will be fine tuned in to what our community wants and needs. This book gives us a glimpse of how it will work and evolve over time once the “doors open” and we are up and running!
Co-ops are like a big simmering soup pot of positive energy and as a result they foster and promote good eating and nutrition. This book gives readers a vision of what that is like. Believe me, I have lived in communities large and small with a food co-op for the past 51 years and it really does make life better! It will change our lives directly and at other times obtusely but in an up-beat way purely due to luck and serendipity. And best of all, WE OWN IT!!