review by Jack Kittredge
Benjamin Lorr is a terrific author who has taken on a substantial project – to expose the underside of the American grocery business. This project took him several years, during which he experienced some of the least desirable jobs the industry offers – cleaning the 38-foot fish counter at Whole Foods and removing the layers of ice, fish manure, rotting fish guts, pieces of cracked shells, and other 2-month old detritus, gagging at its reek of decay and preparing it for another go tomorrow, traveling the Interstate Highway in a refrigerated 18-wheeler with a blonde Amazon while she tends her 2 beagles and fends off drunk male drivers, managing to get the load to the warehouse on time most of the time, and riding a shrimp trawler as it scrapes the seafloor off Thailand with its huge nylon nets, like bulldozers bringing up everything and obliterating the remains of any ecosystem there, while listening to the story of documentless, regularly beaten and illegally trafficked Asians who are literal slaves, unwillingly laboring aboard such ships for up to 5 years.
In the meantime he gets to tell a few more palatable stories – the origin of Trader Joe’s at a disastrous Friday afternoon Hollywood bar meeting when Joe Coulombe learns a most important lesson, Ben’s discovery of Slawsa, the bright yellow condiment that will change your life accompanied by Julie, the woman who is bringing it through the maze of regulations, marketers, Fancy Food Fairs and tastings required to get it needed shelf space in grocery stores to prove itself, and two training sessions, one to be an “associate” at Whole Foods in which we learn about the corporate psychology which drives this particular company, and one with a motivational behavior expert who understands the consumer need for ethical sourcing and how that translates, very very loosely, into product certification.
The author is a master of capturing people and real situations in a few paragraphs as he does here with Lynne Ryles:
“I’m balled up shivering. Fists clenched beneath armpits, knees clenched to chest, in some sort of woke rigor mortis, blinking aware in the three a.m. darkness, listening to the first sounds of this new day, a quiet whisper of a trickle as the trucker in the bunk below me slides to the edge of her bed and begins softly pissing into a plastic garbage bag. We are parked here in a rumbling cab not twenty-five feet from a truck stop and its bank of well-lit, regularly cleaned bathroom stalls; but this bag pissing, this dedication to efficiency even at the cost of common sense and common smells is the way of the trucker. Or so I have been told. There is a moan of relief like a back massage. Then a long pause.
‘Well fuck me, tomorrow came today. We got fifteen minutes.’
There is a fit of coughing at this. The cough of a woman who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day and drinks a six-pack of Pepsi every morning before noon. A disgusting cough to listen to, wet and moldy, a tumbling of moss and rotten sponge.
‘Rise and shine, sunshine,’ she growls. ‘I’m getting coffee. You want any?’
Lorr has chosen to do more of a journalistic look at the inputs to the American grocery industry than a study of it. He mentions the over $700 billion in sales it represents, the 30,000 stores it supplies, and the 2% of their lives most American’s spend in them. But mostly he inquires into the people who serve it, their hopes and dreams, and how they are so often cheated of fulfillment. For that seems to be what this industry does to many who work for it. Pressed by consumers for cheaper food, competing for key locations and neighborhoods, the easiest input to squeeze is often the worker or the supplier of a key service.
I‘m not sure I can say I know more facts now about the US grocery business, but I certainly know a lot more about what makes it work and how it is so contrary to the small farms and local food movement NOFA and DFA represent. The quality of food is barely considered in grocery calculations, compared to price and cosmetic appeal. The integrity of certifications is unimportant, just the paperwork enabling the claims to be made. And of course the nutritional value of what is offered matters not at all as customers are paraded past appealing fare that is more likely to result in a sale.