Few books that are investigative in nature are intense. The Secret Life of Groceries by Benjamin Lorr was one of those books. I was left feeling reeled, much like feeling lost in a grocery store, say, looking for something like pomegranate molasses. After a brief history and structural overview of grocery stores, Lorr went on to explain how “food” is an “irrelevant, unhelpful, even illogical way to discuss the work of a grocery” (p. 11). It is always about the product or even SKUs—the Shop Keeping Units in an average store, the price per unit, packaging, and sales.
At the risk of dating myself, I saw my whole life as a consumer, from going to the Piggly Wiggly with my paternal grandmother and remembering the delight my mother had when the A&P opened at the bottom of the hill on Broadway (because the National Food Store by the old Arborland was a longer drive) to visiting superstores like Meijer and Costco and stepping into places like Trader Joes and ALDI. And yet, my two mainstays are small, independent stores in Ann Arbor like By the Pound, the Produce Station (ever since it was Frog Holler!), and more recently Agricole in Chelsea. I will never again look at groceries without introspection.
The dark side of consumption takes on the vulnerability of the human desire to connect and builds an entire industry around food. Food is no longer seen as a practical need. It is an industry that is never sufficient and allows one to say, “I have enough.” We are enthralled as we develop our meaning and shape who we desire to be. Lorr remarked that groceries are a lot like yoga. We self-betterment, self-improve, and go in search of ourselves, but what was in the end? We go back for more.
Lorr covers trucking as a form of modern day “sharecropping on wheels.” And exposes global human trafficking. But unfortunately, the risk of media storms or vetting processes on audits (the auditing process itself deeply flawed), consumer ethics, or fair trade is that the conditions get pushed further underground. The biggest question we should look into is why are people so poor to begin with? Once “you start chasing price downhill it rewards the worst practices” (p. 264).