You'll be shocked to learn what goes on behind the scenes at grocery stores – and relieved to know there's a much better alternative.
There is no doubt that the modern-day grocery store is a thing of wonder, a testament to the tremendous advances in food production, transportation, and refrigeration. You can buy South African lemons and Brazilian mangos in the middle of winter, or pile your dinner plate with shrimp from Thailand, sautéed greens from California, and Indian basmati rice on any given night.
Access to such bounty is a real privilege, but with it comes a responsibility to understand where it's coming from. That's where grocery stores fall short. Very little information is available as to how these foods land on store shelves; the grocery industry is a secretive one, highly protective of cutthroat practices that keep it profitable.A new book by Canadian journalist Jon Steinman, called "Grocery Story: The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants" (New Society Publishers, 2019), delves into the mysterious world of grocery stores and reveals how harmful and unjust many of their practices are. From unrealistically high cosmetic standards that drive food waste globally, to abusive contracts with suppliers and 'slotting fees' that force food producers to pay enormous amounts of money up front just to place a product on store shelves, grocery stores wield disproportionate power over the production, processing, and distribution of food.
What's interesting is that these practices go on in the background while North American interest in local and seasonal food production is booming. People are more interested than ever in signing up for CSA shares, shopping at farmers' markets, making their own kombucha and kimchi, starting gardens at home, keeping backyard chickens – all of which is valuable and important – but critiques of the grocery store model are lacking. As Steinmann writes,
"Since 1990, the share of total at-home food expenditures directed to farmers and processors through the direct-to-market model (farmers' markets, farm stands, CSAs) remained steady at 5.9 percent; the share of at-home expenditures directed to retailers [is] 91.6 percent. There is little question where to assign our local and good food aspirations. It's time we place our food movement 'eggs' into the grocery store basket. It's time for a supermarket shakedown."
These numbers reveal that, no matter how much local food we source through alternative pathways, it is far from affecting the grocery store model in any real or meaningful way. That is why Steinman suggests embracing food cooperatives, or co-ops, which are an alternative way of supplying a community with groceries that does not cause so much harm.
The book goes onto discuss how co-ops work (customers pay a membership fee to become owners of their local grocery store and have a say in how it's run) and offers numerous case studies of both successful and failed initiatives across Canada and the United States.
There are many benefits to co-ops. They can work closely with local farmers and sell products without expensive slotting fees, crippling contracts, or impossibly large order sizes. They are hives of social activity, offering cooking classes and nutrition workshops for members. They breed customer loyalty, cooperate with local businesses, and keep more dollars in the local economy. They're physically smaller, offering a more personalized experience for shoppers, and often more centrally located in a town or city. (See this interactive map to locate food co-ops in your area.)
It's impossible not to feel convinced by Steinman that co-ops are the way to go. His book is a passionate love letter to the model, a hopeful sign of "what's possible," as he calls it.
"The movement for more local, clean, and healthier food would be well served to put more resources behind community-owned grocery stores. Same goes for all food movements: farmer welfare, equitable trade, the environment. Fewer resources could be put toward fending off the destructive tide of the grocery giants and redirected into the creation of a new economy and a new food paradigm – one that food co-ops are already helping usher in."
I never thought a book about grocery stores could be so engaging, but Steinman held my attention from start to finish. The early chapters on the history of grocery stores and product branding were particularly interesting, as were the explanations of food pricing and the failure of antitrust regulation in recent decades. This is a book for anyone who eats food and thinks about its backstory. You'll never look at a grocery store in the same way again.