“The Secret Life of Groceries”: Is it possible to eat well and trade fairly?

Does “Shopping Carefully” do any good?

Many people are aware of abuses in the American food chain and do what they can to spend their money for “good”. Some opt out of eating certain foods altogether, and some pay a premium for foods they believe are ethically produced.

The problem is that government agencies are underfunded, and changes that have come from consumer demand so far seems to have resulted in problems getting pushed down the food chain with the end result being that the workers at the bottom, those actually producing the food, get further exploited while those at the top get richer.

Author Benjamin Lorr and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock have recently examined the problem from two different perspectives.

Benjamin Lorr Examines the Grocery Industry and the Shrimp Food Chain

2020 has brought a lot of changes to the entire world.  Perhaps one of the most surprising ones is the new respect and appreciation that we all have for the people who help us literally keep food on the table.  Random shortages throughout the year have also certainly, at times, made me wonder why the store had plenty of one thing and not another and also made me realize that I don’t need to have 100% of everything available all the time to get by.  If they have plenty of one thing and are out of another, Meh, I think, we’ll eat that next week.


I had plenty of time to think about these issues, especially back in March and April, when the check out line at my usual grocery store snaked around to the back of the store, so when I spotted Benjamin Lorr’s book, The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket in Chicago’s After-wards bookstore (it’s just off Michigan Avenue and the Magnificent Mile, but hidden…you will be happy if you take a moment to figure it out), I thought, brilliant.


I sincerely love nonfiction books and therefore support the wonderful authors who take the time and money to write them, so I have to say, I am extremely happy for Lohr and the BRILLIANT timing that put this book in the stores in September of 2020…when we could all remember the shortages of the spring and were gearing up to make it through the winter as Covid-19 infection rates started to surge again.


And if you read nonfiction, you already know that there is no way that Lorr could have anticipated these events.  And he didn’t: he’s been researching this book since 2015, which included traveling to Thailand and working a three month stint at a Whole Foods store. 


Lorr addresses the sense of misgiving that a lot of us probably have: we know somewhere along the way someone, or a lot of someones, is probably being exploited.  According to Lorr, we are right about that, and in fact, sometimes trying to do right by insisting that foods be labeled a certain way, e.g. “ethically sourced”, causes more problems that it causes and stretches the food chain even tighter, which usually has the effect of lowering and benefits for the employees at the bottom, both in the U.S. and abroad. 

This is a Food Lion in Madison Heights, VA. Apparently it is a leftover from the decorating style from the ‘80’s although the photo was taken in 2017. Food Lions are scattered all over the corner of Virginia in which I live, and I’ve become pretty partial to them over the last few months; they are doing a great job with managing the Pandemic in their stores! Or at least the one near me! https://www.flickr.com/photos/virginiaretail/34942799061/

This is a Food Lion in Madison Heights, VA. Apparently it is a leftover from the decorating style from the ‘80’s although the photo was taken in 2017. Food Lions are scattered all over the corner of Virginia in which I live, and I’ve become pretty partial to them over the last few months; they are doing a great job with managing the Pandemic in their stores! Or at least the one near me!

Food Lion - Madison Heights, VA

The issues Lorr confronts are real, serious, and complicated, but The Secret Life of Groceries is not a dark book, ironically.  First, Lorr’s style is light and anecdotal: you can see and hear what he does, and he also brings himself into the story in an engaging way. According to his bio on Amazon, he was a high school science and sex ed. teacher, and if that gig doesn’t teach you to turn a phrase, nothing will. Second, come on, haven’t you ever wondered what in the heck is the plan at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Aldi, and the Piggly Wiggly (or Publix, Harris Teeter, Kroger…or Food Lion, which is the regional chain with an outlet nearest to my house).  Lorr got the entire story, and you can amuse yourself with seeing if you fit the demographic of the stores you like.  Or not.

After examining the grocery stores we all frequent, he goes on to take a look at food product marketing, and in the darkest chapter of his book, the shrimping industry.

Don’t be scared: you will still be able to buy groceries after you read this book. You should read it, and you will enjoy it.

For a pictorial history of the grocery business, check out this photo essay of 61 Rare Vintage Photos of Grocery Stores from Bored Panda. 

Morganics: Morgan Spurlock takes on the Chicken Industry

You might remember Morgan Spurlock from his 2004 film, Super Size Me, in which he at nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days, and when asked if he wanted to “super size”, always said “yes”.

I recently rewatched this film, and I have to say that it hasn’t aged that well. Or maybe we have simply evolved a lot since then.

One of the biggest flaws in this film is the amount of soda (pop) that Spurlock drinks, not to mention the milk shakes. Clearly, that amount of fat and soda is going to ruin your system no matter what you are actually eating. So I would have liked to have seen what a simple diet of the food would do.

I also agree with criticism that says that no one should be eating a steady diet of fast food. Most people gain weight from a steady diet of restaurant food, period, unless they are really careful. To me, the deeper issue is the fact that low income people rely on low-priced menus at McDonalds and other fast food places because it’s cheaper than going to the grocery store. That’s the real cause for concern, in my book.

If you watch Super Size Me after reading Lorr’s book, you will also want to roll your eyes at Spulock’s vegan chef girlfriend. We’ve evolved in other ways, too.

Now, he’s out with a second installment of the series, Super Size Me 2, in which he takes on the chicken industry, and it’s the chickens who are being super sized.

First, he raises his own chickens, and then he (supposedly) serves them up in his own fast food joint, “Holy Chicken”.

I don’t want to give away what happens becaus that will take away from your enjoyment of the film, but suffice to say that at the end, my adult daughter asked me, “So what are we supposed to eat?”

Spurlock doesn’t try to answer that question, but luckily, Benjamin Lorr, with his more thoughtful approach, does.


Also by Benjamin Lorr

Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga: With a title like that, what else is there to say about a book?

Competitive Yoga? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

Sounds like an awesome book.

More Reading about the Food Industry

FREE READ: Upton Sinclair, the Original Food Whistleblower

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle unleashed an early major scandal in the food industry in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century by exposing the unsafe (to workers) and unsanitary (to everyone) conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking plants.

The Jungle is in the public domain. A free digital version is available at Project Gutenberg, and a free audio edition is available at Librivox.

The graphic adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” shows how hard work can lead to poverty from The Lois Level explores a beautifully done graphic edition of this book along with Sinclair’s other work.

Fast Food Nation: Are you what you eat?

Fast Food Nation is a well known and well regarded exposé of the fast food industry. It’s nearly 20 years old now, so be sure to get an updated version of this classic work of investigative journalism.

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