by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Supermarkets

Nov 19 2020

Retailers should promote health eating: Here’s how.

I was sent a press release announcing a set of research papers on retail strategies to improve healthy eating.  Most people buy food at supermarkets, but supermarkets are not public health agencies.  They are businesses with one purpose: to make money for owners and stockholders.  As I discussed in my book, What to Eat, they are designed to keepyou in the store as long as possible so you will have plenty of time to impulse-buy.  These papers in the  International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health discuss ways retail food stores could help diets get healthier.

They come with a new report outlining a research agenda for retailers.  All of this was funded by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in partnership with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and The Food Trust.

The full issue of the journal is here.

Special issue: Retail Strategies to Support Healthy Eating

Oct 2 2020

Weekend reading: Grocery Activism

Craig B. Upright.  Grocery Activism: The Radical History of Food Cooperatives in Minnesota.  University of Minnesota Press, 2020.

Grocery Activism: The Radical History of Food Cooperatives in Minnesota:  Upright, Craig B.: 9781517900731: Amazon.com: Books

I was interested to read this book because I was a member of the Berkeley Co-op grocery store on Shattuck Avenue back in the day and am a member of the Ithaca Co-op now.  Co-ops are member-owned.

Upright based this book on his doctoral thesis about the history of the co-op movement in Minnesota, which aimed to promote production and sales of organic foods.

It is important to study these stores and their stories because it is difficult to understand what “organic” means today without knowing what it could have been, without exploring how this new product, sold in these unconventional settings, attracted the passions of those who wanted to make their world a better place (p. 5).

The difficulty, as Upright puts it, was in trying to run a business and a social movement in one space.

A co-op will cease to exist if it continually operates at a loss.  But co-ops are generally not oriented toward generating a profit.  In fact, state laws often dictate that surplus revenues must be reinvested in the organization or returned to its members…Remaining true to their social values helps maintain the patronage and support of the members who consciously choose to participate, thus keeping the business viable (p. 79).

Upright explains the social-movement origins:

Between 1971 and 1975, co-ops promoted ideologies of opposition to larger capitalistic structures.  Particularly in the Twin Cities, new-wave co-ops opened primarily in areas characterized by institutions of higher learning and strong leftist political leanings.  They formed as art of a larger rejection of mainstream economic policies, attempting to place more power in the hands of lower-income consumers; the array of foods they sold reflected a liberal cultural and political agenda, balanced by the need to sell enough product of any kind to stay in business (p. 125).

This movement was important because in many ways, it succeeded.

The goal so many worked toward…has been achieved; organic food has now achieved mainstream acceptance.  Even so, cooperatives thrive…The social change many championed when this movement began more than forty years ago—the hope that they could challenge the dominance of prevailing agricultural paradigms—has been realized without leading to the irrelevance of co-ops (p. 210).

Jul 21 2020

Report questions value of online SNAP shopping

The USDA has a pilot program that permits most low-income families enrolled in SNAP (formerly food stamps) to use their benefits to buy groceries online.

This could be convenient and protect participants from Covid-19 exposure.

But food will be more expensive: SNAP does not cover delivery costs.

Only a few retailers at the moment can accept SNAP benefit payments: Amazon, Walmart, Fresh Direct, and Safeway/Albertson’s.

This situation has induced the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) to publish a research report that raises some serious questions.

According to the press release, the pilot program exposes SNAP participants

to a loss of their privacy through “increased data collection and surveillance,” as well as risks involving “intrusive and manipulative online marketing techniques.” The report reveals how online grocers and retailers use an orchestrated array of digital techniques—including granular data profiling, predictive analytics, geolocation tracking, personalized online coupons, AI and machine learning —to promote unhealthy products, trigger impulsive purchases, and increase overall spending at check-out….The increased reliance on these services for daily food and other household purchases could expose these consumers to extensive data collection, as well as unfair and predatory techniques, exacerbating existing disparities in racial and health equity.”

On the basis of this report, several advocacy groups jointly wrote the USDA Secretary to make sure that these retailers do not unfairly target or take advantage of SNAP participants.

Our request is based on a new study by the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), which finds that leading online grocery and e-commerce companies…are engaged in extensive data profiling, and deploying geolocation tracking, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and behavioral science techniques to track and target consumers, promote unhealthy products, and trigger impulsive purchases. Most of these operations are largely invisible, and CDD’s analysis of the companies’ privacy policies reveals that they fail to protect consumers from these data collection, targeting, and predatory marketing practices.

The letter has several “asks,” among them:

  • Forbid the use of techniques that take advantage of consumers’ psychological vulnerabilities, or employ manipulative practices designed to foster impulsive behavior.
  • Require participating retailers to prioritize healthier products in their ecommerce and online promotion efforts, discounts, and coupons.
  • Facilitate the participation of smaller, independent retailers, farmers markets and other local produce suppliers.

These groups also plan to ask Congress to conduct oversight hearings.

It’s terrific that these groups are keeping an eye on this program.

I’m curious to see the percentage of SNAP participants who use the program and are willing to pay the higher delivery costs.

I imagine that the big retailers are for it.  As was documented in Michele Simon’s 2012 report—Food Stamps: Follow the Money—for some time, retailers are SNAP’s greatest beneficiaries.

Jul 3 2020

Weekend reading: catching up on recent reports

Read these and you will be up to date on anything known about food systems in the age of COVID-19.

FAO and Hopkins Dashboard

This gives data on aspects of food systems—supply chains, food environments,  consumer behavior, diets and nutrition, and the effects of key drivers like climate change and income, 170 indicators in all—on the food systems of 230 countries and territories.  This is one-stop shopping for this kind of information.

“What struck us back in 2017 while working on the UN High Level Panel of Experts on Food Systems and Nutrition Report was the lack of accessible, organised, quality-checked information on food systems. Without that data, it’s difficult to identify the best evidence-based actions that could improve food systems,” said Johns Hopkins Global Food Ethics and Policy Program Director Jessica Fanzo. “It was really important to us, given the level of complexity and interconnections inherent to food systems, that the data be presented in a way that is easily usable – and that’s what the Dashboard does. Now decision makers have easy access to both data and to policy advice that is specific to their situations.”

Oxfam: “Exposed: How US supermarkets are failing their workers in a global pandemic”

Oxfam analyzed the formal policies of major US supermarkets during the first months of the pandemic, including Albertsons/Safeway, Costco, Kroger, Walmart, and Whole Foods/Amazon in five key areas: paid sick leave, hazard pay, protective gear, engagement with workers and worker representatives, and gender and dependent care. While all of these supermarkets stepped up some of their policies, none of them are doing nearly enough as they continue to make outsized profits on the backs of their low-wage workers.

Here are the Press release and the report.

CGIAR: Actions to Transform Food Systems Under Climate Change

Nothing short of a systemic transformation of food systems is required if we are to feed the world’s current and future population sustainably under climate change…we aimed to identify the high priority actions that we must collectively take now, for climate change adaptation and mitigation in food systems.  [Note: CGIAR was formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, but now goes just by CGIAR]

Here is the report.

HLPE [High Level Panel of Experts] 15: Fooc Security and Nutrition: Building a Global Narrative Towards 2030.

Following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the HLPE was asked to urgently prepare an issues paper on the potential impact of the pandemic on global food security and nutrition for an extraordinary meeting of the CFS on 19 March 2020. The key findings and recommendations from this issues paper have been updated and included in this report…The current COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented in its global scale and the situation is changing rapidly, with many unknowns. It serves as a reminder of the fragility of the global food system and the importance of global coordination.

Here is the report.

 

Apr 1 2020

Coronavirus and food: Happy April Fool’s Day

This is what the bagged salad section of the Wegmans in Ithaca, New York, looked like early last Friday morning (right after the store opened for the day).

Thanks to Stephanie Borkowsky for the photo.

Nov 2 2018

Weekend reading: Supermarket USA

Shane Hamilton.  Supermarket USA: Food and Power in the Cold War Farms Race.  Yale University Press, 2018.

Image result for supermarkets usa shane hamilton

I did a blurb for this one:

Who knew that supermarkets, of all things, were key elements of U.S. free-enterprise, anti-Soviet, Cold War propaganda.  Hamilton fully explains how “farm wars” led directly to today’s international industrial agribusinesses.   This superb book is a must-read.

Jun 30 2017

Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods: a roundup

I’ve been asked to comment on Amazon’s proposal to buy Whole Foods.  So much has been written about it that it’s hard to add anything new.

My immediate thoughts:

The facts: Amazon offered $13.7 billion to buy Whole Foods.  This may seem like a lot of money but it’s just 3% of Amazon’s $470 billion holdings.

How did this happen?

What are the implications?

Effect on retailers: Their stocks dropped immediately.  Amazon is serious competition.

Disruption: This may be a major disruption to grocers, but this industry may have had it coming.

Organics: Whole Foods specializes in organics; producers already cannot keep up with demand.  Farmers will have to grow more, but if Amazon imports organics that will open up possibilities for fraud.

E-commerce: this could increase the value of physical stores if done right, as well as online grocery shopping.

Food chains: Amazon on top.

 “Conscious capitalism”: The end

Maybe, feeding the world (says Alice Waters)

Better food for all?  Civil Eats considers this question, but asks will this do what Walmart does—force lower wages for workers and lower prices for farmers. 

Humor: Alexa: tell me some jokes about Whole Foods’s prices, drones, and Amazon’s ruling the world.

Jan 11 2017

What SNAP recipients buy at one big retail grocery

Advocates have been pressing USDA for years to (1) get data on what SNAP recipients buy with their benefits, and (2) permit pilot studies of what happens to purchases of soft drinks if you exclude them from the benefit package.

In 2012, I did a post on the 2012 SNAP to Health report.  Its recommendations:

  1.  Protect SNAP benefits.
  2.  Collect data

Lots of people have been trying to get USDA to produce data.  Anahad O’Connor, the author of the New York Times account, filed a Freedom of Information request with USDA.  In response, USDA sent him a report it had commissioned from IMPAQ, a “beltway bandit” consulting firm.  His story is here (I’m quoted).

Now we have a partial answer.  IMPAQ analyzed data from one large, unnamed retailer (could it be Walmart?).

Here’s USDA’s summary of the study (and here’s the complete study).

The USDA says the study shows that SNAP recipients buy pretty much the same amounts of what everyone else buys.

Summary category data show that both SNAP and non-SNAP households focused their spending in a relatively small number of similar food item categories, reflecting similar food choices. The top five summary categories totaled about half of the expenditures for SNAP households and non-SNAP households (50 versus 47 percent). Commodity-level data (in the full report) show that both SNAP and non-SNAP households made choices that may not be fully consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

My reading of the report suggests that in this study, SNAP recipients spent more of a combination of their SNAP benefits and their own private money on:

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Hamburger
  • Frozen meals
  • Salty snacks
  • Lunch meats
  • Flavored milk
  • Kids cereals
  • Frozen French fries
  • Convenience foods in general
  • Infant formula

The report does not discuss why these differences might exist but it would be interesting to find out.

If sugar-sweetened beverages really comprise 9.5% of purchases, that comes to $6 billion a year.

That’s why taking them off the list of eligible foods is worth a try.

Recent SNAP news

The USDA is sponsoring a pilot project to allow SNAP participants to buy foods online from certain retailers, including Amazon in three states, Fresh Direct in New York, and various grocery chains in other states.

The idea is to make it easier for SNAP participants to get access to healthier foods.

I hope the USDA is keeping score on what gets bought online, and whether foods cost more.  The benefits are not allowed to be used for delivery costs.