As I have previously mentioned, I love reading books about the systems at work in our world that we barely ever think about. Grocery stores are one such system. The supply chain for things like grocery stores has been slightly more in the news lately, given disruptions caused by the pandemic (not to mention a ship blocking the Suez Canal for days). Yet the news can only ever give a cursory explanation of the complexity of the supply chain. Benjamin Lorr dives deep in The Secret Life of Groceries. This book is neither superficial nor shallow: it is clearly a labour of intense fascination and dedication. There’s so much happening here that I don’t even know where to begin.
Lorr divides the book into 6 lengthy parts rather than chapters, but it works. First he traces the history of supermarkets—how we got from general stores to the behemoth stores in which we shop today. Then he discusses transportation, in particular the transport trucking industry in the continental United States (and Canada). Part 3 covers food entrepreneurs and what it takes to break out onto store shelves. From there, Lorr returns to the store, this time to examine how stores manage their employees, resources, and customers. Next, he examines how regulations around the grocery and food industries aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Finally, he indulges those who crave a really deep dive down the supply chain, all the way to the “bottom”—a world of slave labour, unsafe and unethical practices, and disruptive NGOs. Within each part, Lorr frames his investigations through the lens of personal stories: Part 1 discusses Joe Coloumbe, founder of Trader Joe’s; Part 2 follows Lynne Ryles, a transport trucker who allowed Lorr to ride along in her cab for several days; etc. By the end of the book, you’ll feel like you’ve met a whole bunch of people whose lives are probably very different from yours.
I picked up some great trivia from this book. For example, Sylvan Goldman introduced shopping carts in 1937, but initially he had to hire people to push them around the store so customers would understand their utility. This is just one way that Lorr helps us understand how different the world used to be, and that’s what I come to books like this for. I want authors to remind me that what I take for granted—hopping in my car to go to a big box supermarket, buying pre-packaged food, maybe even doing it all online these days—is new. In the 1950s and 1960s, supermarkets existed but were not like what we have now, and if you go back even earlier, they were seen as pipe dreams that could never work—until someone made them work.
Lorr is careful not to lionize these visionaries nor condemn them, a balance I appreciate. I think, depending on the writer, this story could become a validation of the fictional American Dream: look at these brilliant men who invented modern grocery shopping! Alternatively, the story could be one of complete despair and despondency over capitalism. Both these stories manifest within The Secret Life of Groceries, and it’s Lorr’s ability not to succumb to either side but instead find a middle path that makes this book so compelling.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m firmly anti-capitalist, and I appreciate how angry this book got me at points. Whether it’s the indenturing of truck drivers or the enslavement of Burmese refugees, there’s a lot to get mad about in the secret life of our groceries. But as Lorr remarks in the conclusion, there is something very performative about the way we white folx in the West handle learning about such exploitation. We love to see labels proclaiming food is ethically sourced; we love to perform outrage and dispatch inspectors. Yet how much actually changes? I appreciate rather than bringing us outrage Lorr chronicles those, like P’Aon, who are taking action.
Lorr worked hard on this book, and it shows. He embeds himself in various situations, and he has Done the Research. Though not a thick book by any means, it is meticulous, detailed, and thoughtful. There were times when Lorr’s writing style didn’t work for me—it struck me as that “trying too hard” kind of style that some journalists develop because they are caught in the awkward land between novel-style prose and plain English. Lorr luxuriates in his descriptions a little too much for a non-fiction book, in my opinion. But I can deal with that when he’s bringing me such interesting information!
The Secret Life of Groceries is well worth a read if you’re at all interested in what happens behind the scenes of where you buy your food. You might have noticed I’ve been judicious in my word choice—I don’t want to overhype this book, to describe it as “mind-blowing” or “life-changing,” because I don’t think it is those things, but I think you can easily come up for air after submerging yourself in this book and want to think it’s those things. That’s the kind of book this is: seductive in its exposition, enlightening in its selection of facts, always ready to make you ask for more.