Book Review: The Secret Life of Groceries
Reviewed by Chris Wendel
In a nutshell: The evolution of the American grocery store experience is explained by detailing the complicated paths food takes getting there to here.
Author’s quote: “It’s not that we are what we eat, it’s that we eat the way we are.”
We give little thought to the path, distance and process our food takes before it appears on our grocery store shelves. Our food purchases focus more on fulfilling a curated meal plan, brand loyalty or finding the lowest price. At the same time a well-orchestrated array of producers and vendors magically come together to present food on well-curated store shelves.
Writer Benjamin Lorr decided to explore our complex food industry in more depth. His recent book “The Secret Life of Groceries” traces America’s history of grocery shopping, following it to the dizzying array of food options we have today. At the same time, he discovers the underbelly of our food continuum perpetuated by both the food industry and consumers.
Lorr was fortunate enough to spend time with Joe Coulombe, founder of Trader Joe’s stores. Before his 2020 death at the age of 89, Coulombe was a handbook for understanding the evolution of Americas’ grocery stores. He told Lorr how the first large store concept came about shortly after World War II, bringing promotional pricing into the mix, which shifted the way consumers and grocery executives approached food purchases.
Lorr contends that our food system has become overly price-centric, stuck in a convoluted system that stifles product innovation. Consumers are conditioned to focus on low prices, so once material (commodity) and overhead costs are minimized, the only variable in the food equation left to control is the price of labor.
Five years in the making, “The Secret Life of Groceries” researches several pieces of the food distribution chain. Lorr follows along with a long-haul trucker who works continuous days, delivering commodities to megastore warehouses. The driver earns $17,000 a year and has no home to live in other than her truck. Beholden to work endless hours on the road hopefully to make ends meet (and pay her monthly truck payment to her employer), her story is especially gut-wrenching.
Lorr’s exploration also includes a stint working the fish counter at Whole Foods. He profiles a specialty food company trying to break through the maze of fees and rules to market its product. Lorr’s most significant example of our price-driven food culture comes from his visit to Thailand to interview a slave laborer working in the Thai shrimp industry, exposing long-term environmental damage from seafood farming there.
“The Secret Life of Groceries” blends history, economics and psychology to provide a look behind the curtain and explain how multiple forces work both in tandem and in separate universes to make the “dark miracle” happen. The food we choose has more to do with expressing our personal values than it does providing sustenance. We come to understand that in many ways, the way we choose our food mimics our car and clothing choices.
Lorr’s narrative style is certainly entertaining but at times snarky, with some expletives that may be unsettling for some. After reading “The Secret Life of Groceries,” one can’t help but question the health and social ramifications of not fully understanding the path our food takes to arrive to our homes. We can shop local to a point, but when the food we seek includes items not native to northern Michigan – like bananas, Atlantic salmon or mangoes – things get murky. Add the recent layer of pandemic disruptions to the mix and we’re able to sense how miraculous and flawed our food system actually is.
Chris Wendel is a business advisor with Northern Initiatives, a community development financial institution (CDFI) based in Marquette, Mich. Northern Initiatives provides money and know-how to businesses throughout Michigan. Wendel lives and works in Traverse City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.