Tag Archives: grocery store

Who Owns Your Grocery Store?

Take a moment and consider the following statistics:

Groceries and food are unique in that all Americans buy groceries and food—the difference being that food can be purchased both in its ingredient form (e.g. groceries) and its prepared form (e.g. restaurant meals)—regardless of income level, race, etc.  This is literally something that we all should be interested in.

I would contend, however, that most consumers do not give a second thought to groceries outside of what they write on weekly shopping lists.  Granted, there are informed consumers who seek to maximize their grocery dollars or seek to spend their grocery dollars on products that match a certain set of beliefs.  In a nearly $850 billion market there are a lot of people who just go about their business in a routine.

It’s not merely about funneling dollars from corporations that do not share your beliefs—although that is a big part of the allure—but also about creating an economic system where small purveyors can access markets.  If you are a producer of anything, be it food or lawn mowers or children’s toys, supply to Walmart means being big.  Like really big.  If you are a local grower with a seasonal schedule Walmart or Kroger will not even take your call.

However, these are the kinds of enterprises that we need to support in a world where our food increasingly comes from fewer and fewer suppliers.  It is not a sustainable or resilient system to have single points of failure for entire segments of our food system.  That is where we stand right now.  If Tyson Foods went out of business tomorrow how much chicken would disappear from the shelves of your grocery store?  My guess is a lot.

This is where our grocery spend comes into play.  We can choose to spend our grocery dollars on a daily basis at stores that support local providers.  The best part is that this is not a change that requires a serious capital outlay—like buying an EV or installing solar panels—and it does not require large lifestyle changes—you are still shopping for groceries after all.

The goal is to find a locally owned retailer of groceries and shop there as much as possible.  It’s a little like George W. Bush imploring the American people to go shopping after the attacks on September 11th.

It’s a little more complex than that, but the idea is extremely simple.

In my household we spend an average of ~$770 per month on groceries based on actual spend going back to last summer.  Yes, I have a problem with tracking things on spreadsheets.  My goal is to direct as much of that monthly spend to local retailers and providers of food.  It is fairly easy for me to shop local since I have access to an excellent cooperative grocery store—NewPi—and a vibrant selection of farmers’ markets when the weather improves.  I would contend that most people also have access to these kinds of retail outlets.  Take a moment and find your local coop.

As it stands right now for the year, our household spend is ~40% local.  There is much room for improvement.

Friday Linkage 10/11/2019

Apparently James O’Keefe and his repugnant brand of “investigative” whatever was a little too tame for the right wing.  Now they are paying for people to go to town halls and say shit like this woman, who is an operative for LaRouche PAC.

We also live in a world where a sixteen year old girl worried about climate change is the subject of an adult wishing he had a sniper rifle.


On to the links…

Revealed: The 20 Firms Behind a Third of All Carbon Emissions—You can worry about plastic straws all you want.  These twenty firms are the reason why the planet is screwed.

A Champion of the Unplugged, Earth-Conscious Life, Wendell Berry is Still Ahead of Us—The world needs more Wendell Berry.  This quote says it all, “the origin of climate change is human laziness.”

Record Debt and Inequality Gap? It’s Almost like 40 Years of Republican Tax Cuts Failed.—Can we finally put to bed the lie that is supply side economics?  Arthur Laffer was wrong.  His acolytes were wrong.  Now, if the goal of Republican tax cuts was to wreck the economy, increase inequality, and hamstring the government…mission accomplished.

Five Radical Climate Policies That Most Americans Actually Like—It is not really that difficult to find a consensus on addressing climate change through proposals that the vast majority of people understand and would accept.  I am sure that Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity would bloviate otherwise but they can run themselves with their millions of dollars to make themselves feel better while we move on to real solutions.

The Northeast US has a Carbon-Trading System. It is Boosting, not Hurting, State Economies.—This is a free market solution that should have right wingers slobbering, but since it does not allow fossil fuel companies to spew emissions at an unchallenged rate there is no way they can agree.  Too bad.

The U.S. Southeast: A Hotspot For Uneconomic Fossil Power, Already Costs Consumers Millions—It is almost as if red states led by Republicans are trying to prove that they will follow bad policies for no other reason than…um…Fox News?

Trump’s Pledge to Save US Coal is Failing, Leaving Coal Country in Crisis—There was never a “war on coal” as understood by Republicans.  The market moved against coal in such a way that made it fundamentally non-competitive before environmental concerns were figured in.  Combine the two and it is a loser for just about everyone who does not have a vested interest in burning more coal.

Plastic Waste is Everywhere in Grocery Stores. Can They Cut Down?—Shopping for groceries is like shopping for plastic sometimes.

A Carbon-Neutral Burger? It’s not Impossible.—All right, if all we ate was an occasional grass fed, grass finished hamburger or steak there would not be any problem.  However, people do not just eat red meat occasionally.  It is a constant presence in their daily diet.

Here’s the Actual Impact of Cutting Down on Red Meat (and Everything Else)—Let’s just simplify this entire exercise.  Reducing animal based food products—meat, eggs, dairy, whatever—is the single biggest dietary change you can make in terms of emissions reductions.

Planters on Brighton Boulevard Aren’t Just for Show, They’re Keeping Garbage Out of Waterways—This is just a really cool idea that seems like it would be easy to deploy in a lot of places.

In a Sign of Cleanup Success, Dolphins Are Living and Giving Birth in the Potomac—We can do better.  We can restore ecosystems.  We have to power.

How Interchangeable Parts Revolutionized the Way Things are Made—What seems obvious in hindsight was not so obvious at the time.

You Must Read: The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table

“Food is not a luxury lifestyle product.  It is a social good.” – Tracie McMillan

9781439171967Take a deep breath and either plow through the first few pages of snottily written tripe about the poor state of Midwestern food compared to the treasure trove that is New York City or just skip those pages because the rest of Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table is worth the effort.  I wish people would stop generalizing the Midwest as this vast expanse of people who eat nothing more than Wonder bread and SPAM.

Treading in the footsteps of Barbara Ehrenreich’s now classic Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, McMillan seeks to ruminate on two topics—how our food is produced and how we consume that food.  The author spends time working in the fields of California’s Central Valley, as a clerk at WalMart in Michigan, and as an expediter at an Applebee’s in New York City.

Fieldwork is something that has been covered extensively in other books, but it is a topic that bears constant examination because of how poorly these people are treated by the system that produces our food.  If we did not demand ever cheaper food then we would not end up with horsemeat or pink slime in our ground beef and workers would be treated with a modicum of respect.  Furthermore, criminalizing the people who come to this country to do this work—albeit illegally—is an atrocity when the companies that knowingly engage in these labor practices are unimpeded.

What I found most interesting about this book is the work that the author did at WalMart and Applebee’s.  Sure, there are other authors who have taken on WalMart but McMillan wanted to examine it through the lens of groceries.  As she and many others have pointed out, WalMart is the 800 pound gorilla of groceries in the United States.  On a national level, it controls approximately one quarter of the grocery sales but that does not tell the whole story because in a lot of markets it represents more than half and in some it is the only game in town.  When one company controls what and how you buy groceries—the basics of living, in essence—then attention must be paid and scrutiny must be applied.

If you want to consumer cheap, processed calories from shelf stable or frozen foods…WalMart is the place for you.  The entire distribution and logistics system employed by the Arkansas behemoth is designed to put products on the shelves cheaply.  If it works for a bottle of shampoo or motor oil, it will work for a box of cake mix or can of beans.  However, produce is something else entirely.  From the moment it is packed there is a clock ticking.  Unlike SPAM, whose shelf life may be infinite, produce’s clock is ticking quickly toward its inevitable end.

As McMillan finds out quickly, produce is just not that well suited to WalMart.  The rot is one thing, but the lack of dedicated professionals to oversee the food everday—low prices demand cheap and interchangeable labor—leads to an alarming lack of real oversight.  I know that I pay more to buy my produce from HyVee, but I see the same people every Saturday morning working in the section and have seen those same people for years.  Let me repeat, the same people for years.  There is no replacement for people who know their jobs well and have pride in what they do.  I am willing to pay an extra dime per pound for my apples to get that peace of mind.

The world is full of authors who write about their experiences in high end restaurant kitchens, but rarely do people write about the places where millions of people go to eat every day.  Where is the Kitchen Confidential for the Olive Garden?

If you want to be alarmed about what we eat and how we eat in America, savor the passages about Applebee’s.  It’s like the triumph of Sandra Lee and her semi-homemade, i.e. from a can and reheated, method of “cooking.”  Everything is reduced down to simple motions, so that once again labor becomes ubiquitous and utterly replaceable.  Who needs knife skills when bags of broccoli and peppers come pre-cut off the truck?  Sauces require little more than a pair of scissors and a microwave to cut open the bag and melt the frozen lump of sauce.  Ugh.

These stories, while illuminating, will come as little surprise to anyone with their eyes open.  Walk through a WalMart and wonder how you can buy something for so little, regardless of the fact that it represents food in the most reduced way possible—cheap calories to sustain in a way that is not entirely healthy.  Sit down and flip through the menu at an Applebee’s wondering how a kitchen could make so many different items.

Where McMillan makes the most interesting observations come at the end of the book that really got to me.  On page 213 of the paperback edition she writes:

“The key to getting people to eat better isn’t that they should spend more money, or even that they should spend more time.  It’s making the actual cooking of a meal into an easy choice, the obvious answer.  And that only happens when people are as comfortable and confident in the kitchen as they are taking care of the other endless chores that come with running a modern family…”

That’s it.  Cooking real food just needs to be part of what we do on a daily basis.  If it is part of the routine, it is no different than a thousand other things that we do.

Find a cop of this book, read it, and let me know what you think.

What’s the Deal with PLU Codes?

A few days ago my father sent me an infographic that I found interesting:


Could it really be this easy to identify if the produce I am buying in the grocery store really has been genetically modified?  The good folks at Snopes.com laid it out pretty succinctly:

“a five-digit code beginning with 8 signifies a genetically modified product, a five-digit code beginning with 9 signifies an organically grown product, and a five-digit code beginning with 0 (or a four-digit code) signifies a non-qualified (i.e. conventionally grown) product.”

I guess it really is that easy.  Hmmm…

Furthermore, you can Produce Marketing Association’s web site and search for particular PLU codes.  The amount of information that the codes contain can be quite amazing and tell a lot about the food we buy at the grocery store.

Local Mushrooms

I was shopping to make a mushroom risotto the other day and came across this in my local HyVee:

After talking about the importance of local food systems and waiting for the NewBo City Market to open, I was pleasantly surprised to see a local producer of shitake mushrooms. A few more dollars kept in the local economy.

How local are these mushrooms?  Approximately 25 miles.  That’s pretty good.

And remember, this is Iowa.  When the rest of the country got wise to the idea of foraging for food everyone around here looked at each other and said, “You mean, like we have been hunting for morels every spring for generations?” Pretty much.

Thinking About Big Food

Do we ever stop and think about how big the food companies in the United States have become?

For example, ConAgra—the maker of Peter Pan peanut butter, Slim Jims, Banquet frozen dinners, PAM, among many other brands—had sales totaling approximately $13.3 billion.

An argument made about big food is that these companies spend a lot of money on research and development.  I would counter that the research and development being done is how to make crappy food last monger on the shelves or how to make Slim Jims out of even more questionable meat.  I digress.  In 2012, ConAgra spent $86 million on research and development.  In isolation that number sounds like a lot, but remember that this is a company with over $13 billion in annual sales.

How do you know that a company is not truly research and development driven?  Look at the amount spent on research and development versus the amount spent on advertising and promotion.  In 2012, ConAgra spent $365 million on advertising and promotion.  For those of you keeping score at home, that is more than four times the amount spent on research and development.

Never mind that in 2012 ConAgra divested its fresh vegetable operations.  Fresh vegetables just do not make the world go round.

I pick on ConAgra because a peer of mine in business school had an internship with the packaged food giant.  One of the projects for the interns was to figure out a solution to a particular problem.  The problem that summer was what to do with the ends of Slim Jims leftover from the production process.  Apparently, Slim Jims are made into long sticks and cut to length for various packaging options.  Leftover are a series of random sized ends and nibs.  Can you imagine being asked to come up with a product for Slim Jim ends and nibs?  It makes me shudder.

What’s for dinner tonight?  The new Banquet Slim Jim casserole!  Delicious.

What about Dole?  Here is a company that actually produces and distributes fresh, minimally processed foods.  In 2011 Dole had sales of approximately $7.2 billion.  So, there is money in fresh fruit and vegetables.  What does that equate to in real terms?  According to Dole, the company sold 154 million boxes of bananas in 2011.  Wow!

A company with that much money on the line depending on agriculture would be bound to spend heavily on research and development.  In the 2011 annual report the verbiage sounded right:

Our research and development programs concentrate on sustaining the productivity of our agricultural lands, food safety, nutrition science, product quality, value-added product development, and packaging design. Agricultural research is directed toward sustaining and improving product yields and product quality by examining and improving agricultural practices in all phases of production (such as development of specifically adapted plant varieties, land preparation, fertilization, cultural practices, pest and disease control, post-harvesting, handling, packing and shipping procedures), and includes on-site technical services and the implementation and monitoring of recommended agricultural practices. Research efforts are also directed towards integrated pest management and biological pest control. We develop specialized machinery for various phases of agricultural production and packaging that reduce labor costs, increase efficiency and improve product quality. We conduct agricultural research at field facilities primarily in California, Hawaii, Latin America and Asia. Our research at the Dole Nutrition Research Lab in Kannapolis, North Carolina, investigates both basic science as well as the next frontier in phytochemical research. We also sponsor research related to environmental improvements and the protection of worker and community health. The aggregate amounts we spent on research and development in each of the last three years have not been material in any of such years.

Sounds like an ag school’s prospectus to future students.  Yet, on page 65 of the annual report the company states that “research and development costs were not material for the years ended December 31, 2011, January 1, 2011, and January 2, 2010.”

However, marketing and advertising costs in 2011 were apparently material totaling over $100 million.  You have to advertise those pineapples!

No matter what the verbiage says, these companies are in the business of selling us packaged and processed food.