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AgBookClub Review: ‘Grocery’

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AgBookClub was created by Gracie Weinzierl and Laura Wolf to spark discussions in the agriculture community on consumer-facing books on food, farming and related topics. They cover a new book each month and host weekly Twitter chats on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Central using the hashtag #AgBookClub. If you missed discussion earlier this year in January, here’s what the duo thought of that read.

 

We all do it — and everyone does it a little bit differently. Carefully curated list in hand, hungry kids in tow, a month in advance or one meal at a time, we descend upon our local grocery store. We trust that the veggies are fresh and that the right brand of cereal is well-stocked. We hope that we won’t need to hop to three other grocery stores to tick off everything on our list. Think very hard about how all of this abundance came to be behind a set of sliding automatic doors, outfitted with refrigerated cases, tasting booths, and nearly every spice imaginable.

In “Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America,” Michael Ruhlman pulls back the curtain on an industry that has shaped American culture. He talks to grocers, butchers, checkout line workers, and more to get a real sense of the way grocery stores have created and responded to American tastes and expectations when it comes to food. In January, #AgBookClub took a journey through “Grocery,” and found it charming, captivating — and surprisingly open-minded.

Laura’s thoughts

I’d like to say I had no idea how many feelings I had about grocery stores before this book — but that would be a lie. I love the way a grocery store’s design can make me feel energized and hopeful, the thrill of stumbling upon a beer tasting, the delight at finding exactly the right brand of salsa — and discovering that the shredded cheese and tortillas I need are in the same aisle. Shoutout to Dierbergs for their mini refrigerated cases sandwiched in amongst the Mexican foods — and the baking aisle, and on and on.

But — like anything in our lives that just works — I had never put much thought into the role grocers and grocery stores play in society, and all the work it takes to get the food I want onto the shelves. In this book, I found more than a match for my grocery store feels. Michael Ruhlman has a penchant for a great grocery store. To him, a well-stocked produce section is the epitome of how far our food system has come, a testament to abundance. And it takes a whole team of people making difficult tradeoffs for it to happen. Products have to be quality tested, and companies vetted for similar values. Availability is paramount, as well as price and margin — which takes into account not just the product and its transport to the store, but customer sensibilities regarding various labels (non-GMO, organic, all-natural, etc.) and the premiums they’re willing to pay for them.

On that note, I found this book to be very fair both to customers making tough food choices with limited information and to food companies and farmers making business decisions that take into account their best interest and that of customers. It was a great reminder for me that a lot of shoppers are taking shortcuts to decisions that feel right at the grocery store, not making a statement about production agriculture — even when their choices are, in effect, making a statement. It encouraged me to be more understanding, and to give more thought to my grocery store purchases as well.

For me, this book earned 4.5 of 5 stars — it’s a topic that’s closer to your day-to-day than you think, surprisingly engaging, and well worth the read – farmer or not.

Gracie’s thoughts

Holy cow. This book was not what I was expecting after I first learned about it on the morning news during the author’s press tour around the time it was released last year. “Grocery” was refreshingly real and about as neutral as it could have been. I loved learning about the history of grocery stores and how they operate from within.

I especially loved the Heinen brothers’ investment in their community. They took a chance on an unconventional historical building in the heart of downtown Cleveland — their hometown — because they loved their community and knew that the redevelopment invigorating the nearly-forgotten downtown neighborhoods wouldn’t thrive without a grocery store.

I’m a big fan of Aldi’s and making that quick run to Walmart, but reading this book made me want to go grocery shopping in a “real,” full-service grocery store (dedicated only to groceries). It’s incredible how many food options there are today compared to 10, 20, 30, and 40+ years ago. And that’s the beauty of our society and efficient methods of production agriculture.

We preach about how important agriculture is to our daily lives, but we sometimes forget the important links between the farmer and consumer. This is an excellent look into the grocery business — how the make their purchasing decisions, the thin margins they operate under, and how adept they have to be at predicting their customers’ needs, keeping everyone happy and well-fed. At the end of the day, we’re all interested in one thing: providing nourishing meals for our families.

I give this book 5 out of 5 stars. It’s honest, it’ll make you think about your own purchasing decisions and just how much power one food dollar holds. And I promise you’ll learn something.

 

AgBookClub is reading “No More Food Fights!” by Michele Payn-Knoper. Visit their website for the full reading schedule.

 

 

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of AGDAILY. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.