by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Supermarkets

Aug 9 2022

My latest publication: Preventing Obesity

JAMA Internal Medicine has just published an editorial I wrote: Preventing Obesity—It Is Time for Multiple Policy Strategies

As it explains, it is a commentary on a research article by Joshua Petimar, et al, Assessment of Calories Purchased After Calorie Labeling of Prepared Foods in a Large Supermarket Chain  

Both papers are behind paywalls, but here are the key points of the supermarket article:

Question  Was calorie labeling of prepared foods in supermarkets associated with changes in calories purchased from prepared foods and potential packaged substitutes?

Findings  In this longitudinal study of 173 supermarkets followed from 2015 to 2017, calories purchased from prepared bakery items declined by 5.1% after labeling, and calories purchased from prepared deli items declined by 11.0% after labeling, adjusted for prelabeling trends and changes in control foods; no changes were observed among prepared entrées and sides. Calories purchased from similar packaged items did not increase after labeling.

Meaning  Calorie labeling of prepared supermarket foods was associated with overall small declines in calorie content of prepared foods without substitution to similar packaged foods.

I was really interested in this study because the “large supermarket chain” that supplied reams of data was so obviously Hannaford, which has long been ahead of the curve in trying to encourage customers to make healthier food choices.

In 2005, Hannaford initiated a Guiding Stars program that ranked–and still ranks–products by giving them zero to three stars depending on what they contain.

I wrote about the first-year evaluation of this program way back in 2006.  It did help customers to make better choices.

Now, all these years later, the FDA is contemplating doing some kind of front-of-package label.  As I said, Hannaford is way ahead.

But the point of my editorial is that single interventions rarely do better than what this study found.

I argue here for trying multiple strategies at once:

My interpretation of the current status of obesity prevention research is that any single policy intervention is unlikely to show anything but small improvements.

Pessimists will say such interventions are futile and should no longer be attempted.

Optimist that I am, I disagree.  We cannot expect single interventions to prevent population-basedweight gain ontheirown,but they might help some people—and might help even more people if combined simultaneously with other interventions.

….Widespread policy efforts to reduce intake of ultraprocessed foods through a combination of taxes, warning labels, marketing and portion-size restrictions, dietary guidelines, and media education campaigns, along with policies for subsidizing healthier foods and promoting greater physical activity, should be tried; they may produce meaningful effects.

Politically difficult? Of course. Politically impossible? I do not think so.

Unless we keep trying to intervene—and continue to examine the results of our attempts—we will be settling for the normalization of overweight and the personal and societal costs of its health consequences.

Here’s Ted Kyle’s commentary on my commentary on ConscienHealth.

Feb 4 2022

Weekend reading: supermarket insider

Paco Underhill.  How We Eat: The Brave New World of Food and Drink.  Simon & Schuster, 2022.

 

What to say about this book.

For one thing, Underhill is a supermarket consultant, whose job it is to tell supermarkets how to sell more food.

For another (full disclosure), chapter nine is titled “Shopping with Marion,” and that would be me.

I met Underhill and his collaborator, Bill Tonelli, at the amazing Sunrise Asian supermarket upstairs from the corner of 9th Street and 3rd Avenue in Manhattan.  We wandered around the store for a bit, collected another shopper, and went out for coffee.  The result is presented largely in the form of a conversation.  Here’s a sample from page 157 that starts with Underhill explaining why he loves visiting Hollywood (he lives in New York):

“…And going to L.A. is so refreshing.  Partially because I got sick of eating here—I live by eating according to the season, and it’s so easy to do in L.A., but back here I’m like, cabbage and apples and potatoes, again?”

“Carrots,” Marion says.

“Carrots.  ‘Oh look, we have rutabaga.  Yay!’  So yeah, I’m a jerk.  I’m one of those people who want to be completely seasonal and local but can’t hack it everywhere.”

“Ithaca has a rutabaga roll every year just before Christmas,” Marion says.  “It’s a bowling contest at the farmers market.  You bowl with rutabagas.”

This is a chatty book with lots of Underhill’s insights into how supermarkets work, starting with parking lots, and what he thinks stores ought to do to face the retail future.

He also went to farmers’ markets, this time with Nina (Planck) Kaufelt.  That chapter is titled “The citified get countrified (and vice versa.”

It’s a chattier and unreferenced version of my 2006 book, What to Eat—the one I am currently updating—but I did take some notes.

I enjoyed reading it, but I’m not exactly an unbiased critic.

Dec 17 2021

Weekend reading: low-wage labor in the grocery industry

Benjamin Lorr.  The Secret Life of Groceries: the Dark Miracle of the American supermarket.  Avery/Penguin Random House, 2020.

I don’t know how I missed this one when it came out in mid-2020, but I did.*

I saw a reference to it and thought I ought to take a look, largely because I am gearing up to update my book, What to Eat, in a second edition for Picador/Farrar Straus Giroux.

My book, which first appeared in 2006, is about food issues, using supermarkets as an organizing device.

Lorr’s book, which I expected to be a superficial expose of supermarkets, is anything but.

It is a deep, detailed, personal, and utterly powerful indictment of the human rights violations perpetrated on workers in grocery supply chains: truckers, grocery store clerks, Thai workers on shrimp-catching boats.

The personal comes in because Lorr is an experiential immersion journalist.  He embedded himself with a trucker, the fish section of a Whole Foods market, and a Thai fishing boat, as well as spending several years doing interviews.  Using the personal stories, he has plenty to say about truly shameless exploitation of low-wage workers in order to keep food costs low.

If you want to understand what low-wage work—or the Great Resignation—is about, here’s an excellent place to start.

This is an important book about food labor issues, but also about how more general systems of exploitation are maintained.

The “more general” leads me to pick one bone with Lorr’s analysis.

For those of us, he says:

Who want to shake the world aware to the fact that we are literally sustaining ourselves on misery, who want to reform, I very much don’t want to dissuade you so much as I want you to consider that any solution with come from outside our food system, so far outside it that thinking about food is only a distraction from the real work to be done.

His book, I’d say, proves just the opposite.  Food is his entry point into this topic and would not be there without it.

*I shouldn’t have missed it.  It was reviewed in the New York Times.  And Charles Platkin, whose work I follow closely, interviewed Lorr when the book first came out.

Sep 8 2021

Marketing strategy of the week: impulse buys

As I discussed in my book, What to Eat, the entire purpose of a grocery store or supermarket is to encourage sales, particularly impulse buys of profitable items.  Food and beverage companies pay stores to place their most profitable products where customers can most easily see them.

This makes checkout counters prime grocery real estate.

Mars Wrigley tells you how this works.

Mars Wrigley showcases new impulse shopping solutions and products

Mars Wrigley said its multifaceted merchandising solutions will shape impulse throughout the shopper journey and provide an effective retail experience, be it at curbside pick-up, online or in-store.

The company is set to work alongside retail partners to implement solutions that reimagine impulse at checkout and identify new spaces in aisle and digitally to optimise category presence and drive conversion [i.e., sales].

Spearheading this growth is its new Accelerating Impulse Moments (AIM) insights platform. This four-pillar platform consists of conversion strategies for retailers across all channels in stores and online, with Snacks Aisle Optimization, Secondary Display Growth, Transaction Zone Reinvention and Digital Solutions Execution.

These strategies will help retailers shape impulse throughout the shopper journey to create an effective and engaging omni-channel experience.

Comment: You are the subject of this “effective and engaging omni-channel experience.”  This may look as if it is about helping grocers market products, but it is really about getting you to buy candy and chewing gum.

Dec 1 2020

How retailers exploit Covid-19: high profits from low pay and food assistance for workers

Brookings has a new report: Windfall profits and deadly risks: How the biggest retail companies are compensating essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We find that while top retail companies’ profits have soared during the pandemic, pay for their frontline workers—in most cases—has not. In total, the top retail companies in our analysis earned on average an extra $16.9 billion in profit this year compared to last—a stunning 39% increase—while stock prices are up an average of 33%. And with few exceptions, frontline retail workers have seen little of this windfall. The 13 companies we studied raised pay for their frontline workers by an average of just $1.11 per hour since the pandemic began—a 10% increase on top of wages that are often too low to meet a family’s basic needs. On average, it has been 133 days since the retail workers in our analysis last received any hazard pay.

In a blog about this reportJudd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria summarize its findings in these headlines:

  • Bezos gets $73 billion; Amazon workers get 95 cents per hour
  • CVS profits increase 27%; CVS workers get 2% raise
  • Walton family adds $45 billion to its wealth; Walmart workers get 63 cents per hour
  • Kroger cancels “hero pay,” authorizes $1 billion stock repurchases

How are these workers getting by?  Federal food assistanc.  A new government report has the data.

The report is titled “FEDERAL SOCIAL SAFETY NET PROGRAMS: Millions of Full-Time Workers Rely on Federal Health Care and Food Assistance Programs.”

It finds that roughly half of Medicaid and SNAP enrollees work at least 35 hours a week, but make so little money that they qualify for these programs.

The employers of low-wage workers who get federal benefits are companies like Walmart, McDonald’s, Waffle House, Kroger, Burger King, and Wendy’s.

What this means is that taxpayers are making up the shortfall in wages, and that use of Medicaid and SNAP are externalized costs of these businesses, as these reports make clear.

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.