Grocery store center aisles represent a food culture of the past – let’s embrace that

Only the Wall Street Journal could think that people buying more fresh produce is a problem.

I’m a month late to this article, but, really, who cares about a market trend analysis on supermarkets? I do, I guess. Maybe it’s because I get incensed by the idea of food deserts (neighborhoods where residents have no access to fresh food) and the restrictions and incentives on food stamps. And maybe because I like to cook, grew up in a place where everyone eats out all the time, and I want to see people making their own food more. Or maybe I’m just mystified by corporations that cling to their old strategies when small changes could help them get ahead of the new trends. Somehow I managed to be progressive, socialist, isolationist, and capitalist in that one paragraph, and I’m ok with that. Why? Because being able to approach the issue of the availability of fresh food from so many different angles should be evidence that this is not a partisan issue – people eating better is good for everyone.

In the same vein, there is the much more recent news that the US not only opposed but outright blackmailed countries that supported a resolution at a WHO summit to encourage breastfeeding. This wasn’t even a resolution that would directly limit the use of formula to feed babies, it just prioritized providing access and education to resources that promote breastfeeding. In fact, at this point there seems to be no debate anymore in the formula vs. breastmilk controversy that so grips every parenting space on the internet. The consensus is clear: breastfeed if you can, for as long as you can, otherwise formula is fine. There will continue to be a market for formula, in the US and elsewhere, because for many women it’s still medically necessary or simply more convenient. But in many countries, companies that manufacture formula have spread false information and encouraged women to buy formula when they don’t need it and can’t afford it. Or worse, when those women look for a cheaper alternative to formula, they turn to imitations with harmful ingredients or things that are similar to milk but aren’t, like condensed milk. These predatory campaigns are motivated by short-term profit margins, digging these women more deeply into poverty and setting up their children for a lifetime of health problems. But Gerber, Carnation, and Nestle will all do fine if people buy less formula, and they can focus their efforts on other products or resources that new mothers will buy instead. Somehow they haven’t thought of this, though, and are content to lobby the government into bullying less powerful countries.

This same trend is what’s driving the changes in supermarkets. According to the Wall Street Journal article above, shoppers are buying less from the center aisles of groceries – i.e. the packaged food sections where the profit margins are highest. Instead, supermarkets are seeing growth only in the outer aisles – fresh produce, meat, and bakery, and occasionally in dairy and frozen foods. This, according to the article (and anyone who has been to a supermarket recently) is due to the rise in popularity of supermarkets that offer more fresh and prepared foods, meal kit services, and online grocery delivery – basically, people have gotten used to fresh food, are cooking more, and realized that they can buy packaged food in bulk online for cheaper. Except for that last bit, these changes all represent healthier habits that ultimately encourage people to go grocery shopping more frequently. Why wouldn’t supermarkets want more frequent shoppers? Because even if people are buying fresh food more regularly, it won’t make up for the profit margin the supermarkets are losing on packaged foods. Produce is cheap – even “expensive” produce like berries that sell for $4 per half pint are inexpensive in comparison to, say, granola bars that are $5+. And supermarkets can’t really justify raising the cost on produce, especially when places like Costco exist that sell excellent produce for much cheaper. But that’s only one of the areas of the supermarket consumers are still shopping in. What WSJ is missing when it bemoans this change is that with this newfound love of fresh food, consumers are willing to buy more of the kinds of fresh products that aren’t raw meat or produce, things like bread and yogurt. And those have a huge profit margin, especially bread, which goes bad quickly and is made out of extremely cheap ingredients. And yet supermarkets are doubling down on packaged foods, stocking fancier brands of the same things people are already buying less of.

Why not decrease the space in the store dedicated to packaged foods and go the Whole Foods route – create more space for fresh prepared foods like bakery items, salads, and meals that satisfy people’s newfound desire to eat fresh food but jives with their love of convenience? This concept of reorganizing stores particularly gets to me because a few years ago, when I was living in Boston, the city of 2 supermarkets, my local Star Market cut its produce section in half to make way for a fancy imported foods aisle. Star Market, for those who don’t know, is the budget brand of the larger Shaw’s, which dominates New England. Clearly, people were not buying very much produce at this particular location, so it didn’t make sense to devote half the store to it. The problem was, though, that people weren’t buying produce because the produce was bad. Supermarkets actually have a rank when it comes to buying fresh foods, and lower end supermarkets literally get last pick and end up stocking their shelves with fruits and vegetables that other stores have deemed not high enough quality. This isn’t just a matter of aesthetics – this produce has often been sitting around longer and ends up rotting in the store. So, instead of spending the money to renovate the entire store, that Star Market could just have bumped itself up on the list to get fresher produce, especially since groceries in Boston are extremely spread out and people in that neighborhood didn’t really have anywhere else to go.

There’s another strategy for supermarkets to get more profit out of this cultural shift toward fresh food, which is capitalizing on the public’s desire to cook by encouraging them to buy other ingredients in their stores to make specific recipes. Again, this is something that Whole Foods does when it describes its produce and offers suggestions for how to prepare it, but also in much sneakier ways, like how it puts a single display of local cheddar in the middle of the apple bin – people love the combination of cheddar and apples, and cheese is much more expensive than apples. These stores could be taking that even farther, more in the direction of meal kits, but without all the packaging and preparation (after all, people are already in the store, you don’t necessarily have to do all the work for them). Let’s take a recipe that’s both popular these days and in season right now – elote, also called Mexican street corn. It’s just fresh corn, spicy crema/mayo, and crumbly fresh cheese. The store will already have a huge bin of corn because it’s cheap and in season, but whereas most Americans will plan on just putting butter on it, the store can have a sign next to the corn that says “try our favorite corn recipe of the month: elote!” with the other two ingredients in a display right next to it and maybe a recipe card or QR code for a link to the recipe. Then in a few weeks, when tomatoes are really at their peak, it can be a recipe for bruschetta, and in February when people are sick of life it can be brussels sprouts with bacon. Supermarkets already do this kind of internal advertising to move products that they have too much of, they just aren’t thinking about it very creatively. It doesn’t even have to be one-off recipes – supermarkets can offer shopping lists and recipe suggestions in an app that sends everything to your phone and tells you exactly where to find all the ingredients in your local store. There’s plenty of room here for these companies to go back to being the center of people’s food lives, all while promoting good eating and cooking habits (not to mention encouraging people to continue to use brick and mortar stores). But implementing these kinds of strategies means recognizing that people don’t cook or shop the same way they used to, and embracing that rather than trying to entice them back to their old habits.

There’s a farmer’s market near where I live now that I particularly love – it’s not selling artisanal anything, it’s just a set of stalls on a side street every weekend of the summer. This farmer’s market is amazing, though, because it accepts food stamps and it provides cooking demos. In a neighborhood that still has a lot of poor people, this is a tremendous service in a “teach a man to fish” sort of way. Meanwhile, the government is trying to implement a food delivery service to replace food stamps that would make it even harder for people who rely on subsidized groceries to get nutritious food. Side note: this service would push baby formula even harder, not only by making it one of the limited options available, but by changing the system to make breastfeeding even harder. Breastmilk isn’t free – it requires time to pump or nurse, which is time not spent at work, access to a pump or childcare that puts the mother in regular contact with her baby, and, significantly, 300-400 extra calories a day that mothers on food stamps are less likely to get. It’s not just about what’s in the boxes of subsidized groceries, it’s about the systems around them. Similarly, it’s not just about what grocery stores sell, it’s about how they incentivize their customers. We can’t just think about food access as a given, and food companies should recognize they are in a position to make trends, not just follow (or bully) them.

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