The Food Issues Book Club: Food and the City, Chapter 1

Hello all!  Welcome to the first installation of the NOiG Food Issues Book Club!  What is that, you say?  For reference, please refer to my last blog post.  Basically I'm gonna read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Food and the City, Chapter1: The Facade of the Modern Grocery Store


The average shopper visits a supermarket 1.7 times per week due to convenience, availability of a variety of foods, and low food cost.  Supermarkets are a recent innovation created in response to a specific need: that of a place from which to sell the overproduction of food which resulted from the mechanization of farming.  Beginning in 1917 the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain introduced shoppers en mass to a new self-serve shopping method quite different to the individual service provided by old-fashioned general stores.  The concept was quickly embraced by American shoppers.

Supermarkets seem to present enormous variety, offering approximately 40,000 different items.  However, industrialized farming has reduced the biodiversity in our food by between 75 and 90%.  "Why?  Diversity is the enemy of mechanization[.]"  Industrial farms grow around 3% of the food plants that have been domesticated for human food needs.  This is largely because only those foods that ship and store well can "endure the industrial food chain."  Additionally, about 90% of our food comes from just five companies.

The supermarket system has also left cities "nine meals from anarchy," with just three day's worth of food available at any given time.  This can be catastrophic in the event of a disruption in the carefully controlled supply chain.  Inventory is kept low as a way to maintain supermarkets' profit margins, which are actually quite narrow.  That control, however, creates a weak point in the "outlet mall for the industrial food system" that is the supermarket.


This chapter touches briefly on a number of food supply issues, which I suspect will all be delved into further in later portions of the book.  In New Orleans, it certainly seems that most residents shop frequently at supermarkets - even among those of us who have the means to go to the Market Umbrella farmer's markets, stop by Hollygrove, or get deliveries from Good Eggs instead.  In the end it does all come down to convenience: using myself as an example, the Whole Foods is less than a mile away, is open till 9pm, and always has the items I've planned to buy.  To purchase based on what's seasonal and available is an ideal to which I aspire, but am not yet really near achieving.

What I've noticed most about "choice" at a supermarket is that it's more illusion than reality.  I might be looking at a shelf with hundreds of loaves of bread - such a wonderful abundance!  But how different are they, really?  I once spent an hour reading the ingredients of dozens of loaves searching for one that both was made with whole wheat and also did not contain high fructose corn syrup; despite all my "choices," such a bread was not among them.  Corporate ownership also comes into play.  As discussed in a Food and Water Watch 2013 report on grocery store monopolies, many products that seem to be different choices actually come from the same few food manufacturers.  They may even be the exact same products in different packaging. 

What about y'all?  Are you supermarket shoppers, or do you make it a point to get to the farmer's market?  What do you think of the "choices" provided by supermarkets?

While you ponder it, check out this food company infographic from FinancesOnline.  See you soon for Chapter 2!

Grocery Shopping Manipulation: Disturbing Data On How Big Food Companies Create The Illusion of Free Choice

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