Of changing grocery store markets and food abundance or food deserts

Three decades ago, the Chicago area grocery market was very different:

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For years, Chicago was largely a two-grocery town: as recently as the late 1990s, Jewel and its No. 2 rival at the time, Dominick’s, controlled two-thirds of the local grocery market.

Times have changed:

But the grocery landscape in 2022 is vastly different. Dominick’s has been gone for nearly a decade, while Jewel and 21st-century rival Mariano’s face increased competition from major retailers such as Walmart, Costco and Amazon Fresh as well as specialty grocers, including Trader Joe’s and the Amazon-owned Whole Foods.

Jewel is still the most-commonly cited grocery-shopping destination for Chicago-area families, according to Nielsen data, but Aldi is nipping at its heels, having transformed itself from the stock-up store of the 1990s. Throw in a handful of online delivery startups that popped up during the pandemic and shoppers have more options than ever, squeezing Jewel from all sides.

Yet, newer grocery stores that once signaled hope are changing locations too:

The Whole Foods that opened in Englewood six years ago to live music, TV-ready politicians and out-the-door lines will close Sunday with little fanfare…

The city spent $10.7 million to subsidize the construction of the shopping center in which the store is located. When Whole Foods announced the 832 W. 63rd St. location’s closure in April, local activists said they felt betrayed, adding that the shuttering would limit access to fresh and healthy food in the neighborhood.

The company closed five other stores across the country “to position Whole Foods Market for long-term success” at the time, including a location near DePaul. It also opened an almost 66,000-square foot location in the Near North neighborhood the same week.

Few grocery options remain in the neighborhood. The handful of grocery stores remaining include a location for low-budget grocer Aldi close by and the smaller “Go Green Community Fresh Market” run by the nonprofit Inner-City Muslim Action Network. Another nearby Aldi in Auburn Gresham abruptly closed in June.

This highlights how much change can come to an essential market in a relatively short amount of time. New actors, new methods, new contexts.

The issue of food deserts was commonly discussed not too long ago but is not mentioned in this second article. However, these two articles highlight ongoing patterns even as the stores and brands change: some places have plenty of grocery stores (with Jewel and Mariano’s locations nearby) while others are not attractive to companies and residents have to search harder and further for food options.

Does this rapid pace of change suggest grocery stores will be quite different still in a few years? Can we imagine delivery only or virtual reality grocery shopping?

The ongoing social construction of what food is labeled healthy

New proposed guidelines from the FDA would change what constitutes health food and what can be marked healthy:

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Under the proposal, manufacturers can label their products “healthy” if they contain a meaningful amount of food from at least one of the food groups or subgroups (such as fruit, vegetable or dairy) recommended by the dietary guidelines. They must also adhere to specific limits for certain nutrients, such as saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. For example, a cereal would need to contain three-quarters of an ounce of whole grains and no more than 1 gram of saturated fat, 230 milligrams of sodium and 2.5 grams of added sugars per serving for a food manufacturer to use the word “healthy” on the label.

The labels are aimed at helping consumers more easily navigate nutrition labels and make better choices at the grocery store. The proposed rule would align the definition of the “healthy” claim with current nutrition science, the updated Nutrition Facts label and the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the FDA said…

New labeling language is sure to be controversial among food manufacturers that have sought to capitalize on Americans’ interest in more-healthful food…

But what constitutes “healthy” food is a thorny topic among nutrition experts. Would foods high in what many nutrition scientists call “good fats,” such as those that contain almonds or avocados, be deemed “unhealthy,” whereas artificially sweetened fruit snacks or reduced-fat sugary yogurts might be considered “healthy”?

Put together science, business interests, politics, other interested social actors, and the everyday food practices of people in the United States and you have a public conversation slash negotiation over what it means for food to be healthy. This is not a new process – it has been going on for decades – but it has significant ongoing implications.

When talking about graphs and charts, I use the example my Statistics class of the evolution of the image of a healthy diet. Today, this is My Plate which was developed a little more than a decade ago. Prior to that was the food pyramid and there were several other government sponsored graphics before that. Each of them theoretically represent a healthy diet or approach to eating but they emphasize different foods and quantities. They reflect this ongoing social construction of healthy food.

This suggests that what is considered healthy might change within a decade or two after this current round of conversation and guidelines comes to a conclusion. These changes will embody new understandings and social/power dynamics.

Does bringing agriculture to cities erase the distinctions between cities and rural areas?

Urban agriculture is a growing field. Does it blur the lines between cities and country?

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As more people pour into metropolises—urban populations are projected to double in the next three decades, according to the World Bank—scientists like Bousselot are investigating how designers and planners can ruralize cities, greening roofs, and empty lots. The concept is known as “rurbanization,” and it could have all kinds of knock-on benefits for ballooning populations, from beautifying blocks to producing food more locally. It dispenses with the “city versus country” binary and instead blends the two in deliberate, meaningful ways. “You don’t have to set this up as a dichotomy between urban and rural, really,” says Bousselot. “What we should probably focus on is resilience overall.”…

But while rurbanization has enticing benefits, it has some inherent challenges, namely the cost of building farms in cities—whether on rooftops or at ground level. Urban real estate is much more expensive than rural land, so community gardeners are up against investors trying to turn empty spaces into money—and even against affordable developments aimed at alleviating the severe housing crises in many cities. And while rooftop real estate is less competitive, you can’t just slap a bunch of crops on a roof—those projects require engineering to account for the extra weight and moisture of the soil.

But the beauty of rurbanization is that agriculture and buildings don’t have to compete for space. Urban land is limited, which means that high-yielding, fast-growing, space-efficient crops work great, says Anastasia Cole Plakias, cofounder and chief impact officer of Brooklyn Grange, which operates the world’s largest rooftop soil farms. “That said, we approach the design of our own urban farms, as well as those we build for clients, with the consideration of the unique character of the community in which we’re building it,” says Plakias. “Urban farms should nourish urban communities, and the properties valued by one community might vary from another even in the same city.”

The primary dividing line referenced here is the presence of agriculture: this happens in rural areas, not so in cities. Bring agriculture to denser population centers, and important lines are crossed.

Maybe? Adding agriculture may or may not affect some of the key features of cities and rural areas: population, population density, land use (not just agriculture), amenities, and ways of life.

Perhaps this is more of an experiment that is just starting up. What are the effects of introducing significant amounts of agriculture plots in major American cities?

The scale of agriculture in California

A story about recharging aquifers in California to help beat droughts and high water usage includes this summary of how much food California produces:

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The stakes are high: California grows more than a third of the vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts eaten in the United States, dominating production of artichokes, avocados, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery, dates, grapes, garlic, olives, plums, peaches, walnuts, pistachios, lemons, sweet rice, and lettuce. The Central Valley is America’s agricultural heartland, crucially important to the state’s economy and the groceries of the nation. More wine grapes are grown there than in California’s wine country, more almonds than anywhere else on earth. There are more than a quarter of a million acres devoted to tomatoes, which when plucked, weighed, canned, and shipped add up to around a third of all the processed tomato stuff eaten worldwide. And that’s not to mention all the region’s livestock—chickens, pigs, cows.

When I go to the grocery store, I am not thinking about what goes into all of the food there and instead just enjoy the many options I have within and across stores. When I have a little more time to consider the process, two thoughts come to mind:

  1. The amazing ability for humans to produce this amount of food from this amount of land. I know California is a big state and a lot of people live there and it is still astounding how much food is produced.
  2. The complexity to pull this all off plus the burden on the natural systems that make this all possible. If one piece gets out of whack or the climate changes or human patterns change, the whole system needs to adjust.

It will take significant work to keep the system going and the food growing. While many dystopian works hint at the trouble that would come when normal food systems are disrupted, there would be serious problems if California cannot produce food in the way it does now.

Selling homes with an image of a large pantry with basic shelves

A commercial from Pulte Homes touts unique features in the houses they build. For example, they have large pantries:

The pantry is large, the stuff on the shelves is well-organized, and the shelves themselves are…mediocre. Builder-grade. Why show off such a large pantry with basic shelves?

Perhaps this accurately reflects the shelves Pulte includes in its homes. This kind of shelves might be found in closets throughout many new homes in the United States. They are usable shelves, after all. If the first homeowner wants something more complicated, they have plenty of options ranging from Ikea designs to those who can custom-fit shelves and all sort of options.

Or, perhaps I am only supposed to notice the space in the pantry. The girl has so much room to move. There are so many shelves. The Costco shopper has somewhere to put all of their bulk purchases.

Even with these explanations, I find it a strange image. I see the space…and the shelves.

Social class and the HelloFresh experience

We recently tried HelloFresh when just needing to pay shipping for three meals. The food tasted good and the prep time was at or close to their projections. The experience also caused me to think about social class, food, and who exactly HelloFresh is aiming for as their customers. A few thoughts:

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  1. The food is delivered fresh and it is in exactly the correct proportions for the recipes. Yet, it requires prep time. This appeals to people who like the idea of fresh food and the work that puts the food together. What is really cut out is the planning for meals and shopping for food.
  2. Because of just needing to pay shipping on an introductory deal, we paid something like $5+ for each 4 person meal. That is a good price. Looking at their longer subscriptions or packages, the food turned to be more like $8-10 per portion. This is closer to the price of fast casual restaurants. This money toward fresh ingredients and still needing to put the meal together would add up.
  3. If we paid a little bit more than normal Hello Fresh rates, we could have full meals delivered from restaurants. The prep time would disappear. I would be out more money.

All of this requires a decent amount of money to start with. That money purchases ingredients, recipes, and time not having to plan or shop. But, if I paid a little more I could have full meals with no prep.

So how does HelloFresh connect to social class? I suspect they are aiming for middle to upper-middle class families that want to provide a more traditional meal time – healthier food! real labor! – at a certain price point. Given the aggressiveness of advertising, I would guess HelloFresh thinks it has a big enough market to really make some money. This is about market segmentation but also about particular food practices tied to social class in the United States.

You can find great restaurants in the suburbs?!?

The New York Times reports on good restaurants in unexpected locations:

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Jalea’s owners, the siblings Mimi and Andrew Cisneros, recognized the risk in choosing this quaint street over a city known for its vibrant restaurant scene. But they saw opportunities in the suburbs that they wouldn’t find in St. Louis. Yes, the rent was lower. And St. Charles, where the Cisneroses spent their teenage years, is also one of the fastest-growing counties in Missouri…

There is also less competition than in the city, they said. Because St. Charles is a small community, the two believe they can make a bigger impact here. With the lower overhead costs, Mr. Cisneros, 29, said he felt much freer to experiment with flavors. (He runs the kitchen, and Ms. Cisneros, 30, oversees operations.) Since the restaurant opened in December, they have been encouraged to see that locals are eager to try Peruvian food.

Media coverage of restaurants in the United States has long centered on cities, while suburbs are most often associated with restaurant chains. But Jalea is one of many independent restaurants — including Roots Southern Table in Farmers Branch, Texas; Travail Kitchen and Amusements in Robbinsdale, Minn.; and Noto in St. Peters, Mo. — that are raising the collective aspirations of the local culinary culture and turning suburbs into dining destinations…

While not all suburbs are alike, in general, suburban planners are not well versed in how best to support independent restaurants, said Dr. Samina Raja, a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo.Because they don’t understand that these businesses often have a shorter financial runway than large restaurant groups or chains, the planners are less likely to provide economic development grants or loosen zoning restrictions.

So suburban eating is not all Olive Garden and Chik-Fil-A and whatever other chain restaurant, fast causal, or fast food place is on the nearest main road?

This article attributes much of the change to what the suburbs have become in recent decades: complex suburbia with more diversity, more cultural and entertainment options, and growing populations. And there are concerns about whether suburbs are well-suited for fine dining in terms of regulations and

My biggest question upon reading this story is how long it might take to develop new narratives about where great restaurants are located. If there are indeed fine dining establishments in suburbs across the United States, does this become recognized or are city restaurants still drawing the bulk of attention? This could depend on a lot of factors – where are restaurant critics based, stereotypes about cities and suburbs, the number of independent restaurants per capita in different locations, etc. – but I imagine it would take some time to shift. Even as the article recognizes significant shifts in suburbs that mean they are no longer just retreats of white and wealthy people, is this widely known and told?

Driverless trucks, dark stores, and getting groceries

How Americans get their groceries might be on the edge of a big change with the introduction of autonomous vehicles and dark stores into the mix:

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Walmart and Silicon Valley start-up Gatik said that, since August, they’ve operated two autonomous box trucks — without a safety driver — on a 7-mile loop daily for 12 hours. The Gatik trucks are loaded with online grocery orders from a Walmart fulfillment center called a “dark store.” The orders are then taken to a nearby Walmart Neighborhood Market grocery store in Bentonville, Arkansas, where Walmart is headquartered…

Walmart, the nation’s biggest seller of grocery items, is testing the Gatik autonomous vehicles as part of its transition to a “hub and spoke” model for grocery delivery where dark stores are closer to the consumer and used to serve several retail stores. Walmart said the use of automated vehicles will also allow store associates more freedom to perform “higher level” tasks, including picking and packing online orders and customer assistance.

“The old architecture of delivery where you have a giant distribution center four or five hours away from the end consumer does not work anymore. Grocers are forced to set up these fulfilment centers close to the customer, and once you get close to the customer you have to shrink the size of your warehouse,” Narang said. “As the size shrinks there is a growing need for doing repeated trips from the fulfillment centers to the pickup points. That’s where we come in.”

The Kroger supermarket chain has tested autonomous delivery with start-up Nuro since 2018 and said it’s now completed thousands of “last mile” deliveries in the Houston, Texas area. Kroger is also using automated warehouses to launch online grocery delivery in Florida and other states where it does not have brick and mortar locations.

The driverless trucks are interesting in their own right. The United States needs a lot of trucks to move goods all over the place. They are a familiar sight on both local roads and highways. Would it matter much to the typical driver if the semi next to them had no driver?

Additionally, it would be worth hearing more about fulfillment centers/”dark stores.” Where are they located? How do they operate? How many of them are needed in a sizable metropolitan region to fulfill orders? Depending on some of these answers, this could change where warehouses are located (can they be as concentrated, such as in Will County?) How much more efficient is this system compared to now? Somewhere, a particular community could figure out how to maximize dark stores and reap the benefits.

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: from urban corner stores to suburban corporate headquarters back to cities

Where exactly did Flamin’ Hot Cheetos come from? According to Frito-Lay, the impetus for the popular Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came from Northern cities and Plano, Texas:

Flamin’ Hots were created by a team of hotshot snack food professionals starting in 1989, in the corporate offices of Frito-Lay’s headquarters in Plano, Texas. The new product was designed to compete with spicy snacks sold in the inner-city mini-marts of the Midwest. A junior employee with a freshly minted MBA named Lynne Greenfeld got the assignment to develop the brand — she came up with the Flamin’ Hot name and shepherded the line into existence…

Six of the former employees remember inspiration coming from the corner stores of Chicago and Detroit. One of the earliest newspaper articles about the product corroborates that detail: A Frito-Lay spokesperson told the Dallas Morning News in March 1992 that “our sales group in the northern United States asked for them.”…

Over the next few months, Greenfeld went on market tours of small stores in Chicago, Detroit and Houston to get a better feel for what consumers craved. She worked with Frito-Lay’s packaging and product design teams to come up with the right flavor mix and branding for the bags. She went with a chubby devil holding, a Cheeto, Frito or chip on a pitchfork, depending on the bag’s contents, she recalls, a memory independently corroborated by newspaper archives…

“In response, Frito-Lay launched a test market of spicy Lay’s, Cheetos, Fritos and Bakenets in Chicago, Detroit and Houston” beginning in August 1990, the company wrote in a statement.

The article focuses more on the controversy of exactly how Flamin’ Hot Cheetos came about but I think the geography is pretty fascinating. Here is why I think the geography matters:

  1. The impetus were existing products in urban stores. Even as more Americans lived in the suburbs than cities by the 1980s, a large company like Frito-Lay cannot ignore consumers in the city.
  2. The product was developed in the Dallas suburbs. Plano is a notable suburb because of its growth and wealth (and McMansions). But, there are plenty of suburban office parks where ideas are discussed. Who knew the snacking fate of America was decided in a relatively anonymous suburban facility by business professionals? (And how many other products have a similar story?) Across the street is Toyota American Headquarters and then each direction on major roads leads to strip malls, fast food, and highways.
  3. The product was tested in cities and the idea developed in the suburbs took flight. Now, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are widely available (though it would be interesting to see the sales breakdown by geography).

Modern capitalism was able to span these disparate locations and churn out a product loved by many. From a suburban office park to snack aisles everywhere…

Basic sociology in the story of a fancy burger from cattle breeding to plate

The story of a $20 hamburger in Washington, D.C. reminded me of several basic sociology concepts from Introduction to Sociology:

ham burger with vegetables

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But for months, the burger had been traveling through a complex supply chain crippled by the novel coronavirus. Now it was about to end up in a takeout box…

On the burger’s journey from a Kansas farm to the engineer’s dinner plate, every person had a story like Solano’s. A rancher with five children who lost thousands every week. A factory worker who brought the virus home to her son. A courier who calculated the true cost of every delivery not in profit, but in the risk it required her to take.

To follow the burger is to glimpse the lasting toll of this pandemic: on the beef supply chain, on the restaurant industry, on the people who were struggling before this catastrophe began, kept going to work throughout it and are still waiting to see what their lives will become when it ends.

A few of the sociological concepts in the story:

  1. The miracle of modern systems. The number of people involved, the travel, and the meanings and social policy it play all hint at the complexity and ability of rationalized processes to bring a burger to the home of city residents. Reminds me of Durkheim’s organic solidarity and division of labor as well as Ritzer’s McDonaldization.
  2. The human involvement and costs all along the way. Producers and workers struggling, consumers eating the product with little idea of how it all happened, and an economic and social system that tried to make it as profitable as possible. Furthermore, many of the people are faceless and their personal and collective circumstances – whether race, class, or gender – are obscured or ignored. Reminds me of Marx and alienated workers as well as consumption patterns within modern capitalism.
  3. I am struck by two additional factors that perhaps could be hinted at during Intro to Sociology: does this story illustrate urban-rural divides? The city residents, young 30-somethings order fancy burgers after a week of white-collar work, ranchers raise cattle in the middle of the country, and faceless workers in between facilitate the exchange. And does this illustrate how broad social change is within the United States over the last century? Some aspects of this story could fit 100 years ago – the shipment of beef and other agricultural commodities helped make Chicago and other places – while other aspects would be unheard of. People need to eat and make money but how this happens evolves over time.