Monday, April 14, 2014

Can We Change The Current Supermarket Model?

I put up a post not long ago that detailed the progression of Kroger stores in the developing Chevy Chase section of town. It mirrors in some ways an article published by Sustainable Food Trust on Apr 1, 2014. Let me look at some of the similarities.

Kroger began life in Cincinnati as a series of markets designed to aide the convenience of homeowners, many of which would need to make multiple stops on daily shopping trips. These “economy” shops carried mainly canned goods, some general staples and rarely any fruits or vegetables. The fresh meats and fish or other farm produce were handled by specialty stores and carried strictly local fare.

To be sure, Kroger was not the only brand of these types of stores since Lexington had its own chain of S. A. Glass stores and to some extent their service areas overlapped. What is significant is the timing of Kroger's arrival and the implementation of zoning in Lexington. It was the “Roaring Twenties.”

Zoning brought with it the progressive concept of isolating commercial interests into “planned” areas rather than allow them to evolve naturally within the normal flow of neighborhood life. The stores themselves found the need to grow in size to accommodate the larger volume, yet less frequent visits of shoppers. Americans, whether they will admit it or not, were socially engineered into believing in the benefits of modern corporate food merchandising and production.

Today, the typical supermarket is filled with more that 47,000 products across a wide range of food, and non food, selections. WalMart, while not known for being a grocery, makes 55% of its total profits from the sale of food. The availability of items 24 / 7 / 365, be they fresh, frozen, canned, processed or microwavable allows us to escape both time and season.

A century ago, people would have known exactly by whom and where their grocery items originated. There was a relationship between the housewife and the butcher, or the greengrocer, where each understood the desires of the other. Such social interactions today are few and far between though many of us are looking for them more often.

How many of us were appalled when we heard of the horse meat scandal or surprised at the size and coverage of the latest beef/vegetable/snack recall? Do any of us really know the supplier of the “better ingredients” in those “better pizzas” from Papa Johns? Did any of us recoil when we learned that the elasticizing agent in Subways bread dough was also used in yoga mats and auto tires?

The increased availability of produce has also led to the socially engineered desire for standardization and uniformity. Breeding in a consistent size and color may enhance the marketability of produce but it also allows for the rejection of entire crops for some farmers, leading to waste levels approaching 50%. Will the rising interest in heirloom varieties stem some of this waste?

Just a little research will reveal that despite the vast number of supermarket products available, a majority of these are produced and controlled by only a handful of industrial food and pharmaceutical companies. The choice that you see is only the choice that they want to see, and usually not much of a choice at all.

That choice, or lack thereof, also impacts our food policies and agricultural practices, driven by the statistics which the corporations collect. How do you want to define a “value meal?” For whom is the value the greatest, you or the supermarket? 
Our trust in the supermarket model to provide us with fresh, healthy, transparently produced food, is at an all-time low.” wrote Rebecca Roberts, in her piece and Joanna Blythman wrote “We are sick of being hoodwinked by the smoke-and-mirrors promotions of the big chains.” in The Guardian. How do you feel about it?

Is today's supermarket your only choice for grocery shopping? If so, here are some tools that you can use for better eating experience. Try following the first three of Brazil's 10 new rules for healthy eating:

1 Prepare meals from staple and fresh foods. 
Today's supermarket is laid out quite diabolically. All of the cheap processed products are in the center. The really fresh and lightly processed stuff is in the back or along the sides, so fringe shop around the edges. Buy only foods that your grandmother and great-grandmother would recognize. Eat fresh. Try to only buy products with five ingredients or less (ideally ingredients that sound like food and not something you’d find in a science-lab.)

2 Use oils, fats, sugar and salt in moderation.

3 Limit consumption of ready-to-consume food and drink products. 
Venture into the center for the items in number 2 only when you need them and try to limit number 3

Lastly, be very critical of the commercial advertisement of food products. They are NOT designed to inform you, either of the nutritional content or the benefit to your health. They are intended to separate you from your money. Take time to reflect on your food choices. Realize the power that each and everyone of us has in voting with our food. Spend to create a better food system and perhaps Kroger will notice.