The Past, Present and Future of Grocery Stores

I love teaching my culinary classes to seniors because it affords me the opportunity to talk about how our food systems  worked 50-60 years ago, and how much has changed in what is relatively a short period of time.  Most of my students remember  when milk was delivered in glass bottles to your front door every morning.  Yesterday a gentleman asked me if people still canned, as he fondly remembered his childhood  basement stocked with jars of fruits and vegetables lovingly canned by his mother to feed the family through the winter.  We often wax nostalgic about trips to the local butcher for a fresh cut of meat wrapped in nothing but butcher paper and twine, or the green grocer which offered a selection of colorful fruits and vegetables, but only what was in season and nary a plastic bag or wrapper in sight.  How we feed ourselves and our families has dramatically changed in the last  century, and in this humble food advocates opinion, not for the better.

History tells us the rise of the grocery store started just about 100 years ago with the Astoria Market in Manhattan.  It was an attempt to bring products together in a single marketplace to provide customers with greater convenience, the birth of the convenience food era which we are still in the throes of.  The Great Depression enhanced the growth of these stores as merchants went out of business and everyone was looking for the best deals. The emergence of home refrigeration which allowed customers to shop in bulk for perishables that they were never able to do before, also had a profound effect on the growth of these stores.  The rise of the automobile further changed how we shopped because we could purchase greater amounts on fewer trips.  In fact changes in  transportation was one of the biggest game changers in the food system, because what was always regional or local food systems got stretched and was now crossing state and  even international borders.

These brought big changes to how we as Americans view food.  First off,  most of us have very little understanding of seasonality, and why would we when you can go into an American grocery store and by fresh strawberries anytime of the year, or corn or any other fruit or vegetable for that matter.  But the impacts of the rise of these mega stores is far greater than any of us can begin to imagine.  The greatest threat these stores pose to humankind is that they have completely disconnected humans from the food they eat.  Let us remember our most basic human elements, providing food and shelter for our families so they can survive.  That is it, all humans are designed to do, and by breaking the connection humans have with feeding themselves, you disrupt the balance.  There is a unique satisfaction gleaned when we provide a healthy meal for our family, especially if you have had to grow or raise some of the food on your plate, but most Americans have absolutely no understanding of this anymore.  Dinner may be heating up a frozen entree or a drive thru at a fast food restaurant on your way from one over-scheduled activity to the next.  This is how the majority of us feed ourselves and then wonder why we are a nation in a health crisis whose roots are found in poor dietary choices.

The rise of Amazon and on line grocery shopping is poised to change the system even further, in ways I am not sure we can yet understand.  However I don’t want to see these changes, I want to return to a time where we shop for goods from our community and locally owned stores.  Already the trend of the farmer’s market is beginning to wane as Americans attention span, shortens and the next new trend comes into favor.  How we feed ourselves shouldn’t be a trend.  Your dollars speak louder than anything else so use them wisely and shop local whenever you can!

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