While supermarket shoppers encountered empty shelves, demand for milk and fresh produce from restaurants, hotels, and schools saw a precipitous drop. As a result, dairy farmers dumped gallons of milk, and fruit and vegetable farmers plowed overflowing supplies back into their fields. Farmers had neither the time nor the resources to repurpose the supply to meet the changing demand.
This food waste exists alongside millions of people going hungry. According to the Brookings Institution, as of June 2020, 16 percent of families reported that their children did not get enough food on a weekly basis. The proportion of Black and Latino children was higher, about 33 and 25 percent respectively—part of the unequal burden of vulnerability during the pandemic. (See Alison Hope Alkon, Sarah Bowen, Yuki Kato, Kara Alexis Young, “Unequally vulnerable: a food justice approach to racial disparities in COVID-19 cases.”)
The emergency food bank system faces a parallel disruption. A U.S. census survey found that 26 million people are without enough food. Feeding America, a national organization of 200 food banks, projects that the number could grow to more than 50 million in the coming months. Food banks have experienced excessively long lines. Nearly all the food banks across the country report increased demand, and 59 percent of them report diminished inventory.
The Role of the Private Market
While the coronavirus pandemic put a spotlight on the U.S. food system, the pandemic is not the cause of these problems. In fact, both food waste and food insecurity are normal features of the food system. The USDA estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of the food supply is wasted every year, and food insecurity has remained a constant policy issue for decades without the federal government ever developing comprehensive solutions.
Agricultural economists point out that the food system is currently failing in its flexibility, unable to connect production sectors with changing consumption needs. Underlying this issue is a sociological question about why a vital system is set up in this particular way. The food system was built to profit from abundance and convenience without creating reliable methods for solving other kinds of problems, including food insecurity and food waste.
Why were these particular market values integrated into a vital system? The answer requires looking back at the history of the modern food system, especially the rise and dominance of mass-merchandising as central to the consumer landscape. U.S. consumers rarely think about why supermarkets—let alone Walmart, Costco, or Target—are such fundamental parts of a vital infrastructure. And yet, almost 90 percent of the nation’s population purchases its food at a supermarket or one of these big-box stores. These private market interests have fundamentally reshaped people’s food tastes, nutritional lives, and consumer expectations.
Supermarkets and Limited Food Access
As I explain in my book, The Problem with Feeding Cities (University of Chicago Press, 2020), the history of modern food distribution since the end of the 1800s is about the shift in the scale of the vital infrastructure, from a system of feeding cities to supplying an entire nation. The transition mirrored changes in the scale of other critical systems like electricity and water distribution. That is, as U.S. population became more urban and suburban in the 19th and 20th centuries, public and private alliances extended the means of resource distribution.
In the early 1800s, food distribution was made up of small-scale public markets and direct farm-to-market exchanges. With the expansion of grocery manufacturing, wholesaling, and retailing, the food system became increasingly privatized. The urban grocery and wholesale system of the late 1800s and early 1900s connected food supplies to new neighborhoods and more consumers. Grocers opened hundreds of standardized outlets to meet the changing urban consumption needs and became skilled at managing many small stores at the same time.
Similarly, the supermarket system started piecemeal to solve a problem. During the Great Depression, entrepreneurs sought ways to lower food prices by linking volume and variety. So-called “cheapy” markets incorporated more types of products, initially by inviting vendors to set up stands in abandoned warehouse spaces. Over time, supermarket owners married self-service consumerism and the coordination of hundreds and then thousands of supply chains into the organization of supermarket aisles.
As the suburbs sprawled between 1930 and 1970, the federal and state governments financed the construction of new roads and highways. The auto and trucking industries replaced rail transportation. Grocery companies and food manufacturers experimented with reshaping supply chains, managing more branded goods and fresh foods. Supermarkets aligned with agricultural interests, trucking industries, and food manufacturing corporations, but a tension grew between high-tech and low-tech parts of the system. Manufacturers making everything from breakfast cereals to processed meats developed automated production lines. They made cheaper foods and relied on supermarkets to push them out in mass. Supermarkets, however, had high labor costs and minimal technology. They struggled to profit.
By the 1970s, supermarkets sold about 10,000 different products, but they made less than 1 cent on the dollar. The largest supermarket companies, many of which became publicly traded to gain expansion capital and remain competitive, were at the whim of shareholders. Stores that did not turn a substantial profit—mostly smaller urban outlets—were forced to close. The financial pressures of the 1970s left behind a landscape of limited food access, part of the larger disinvestment of cities.
Taking Overabundance for Granted
The modern food system was now pursuing a different collective interest altogether: the constant search for organizational and technical improvements in economic efficiency. The food processing and consumer markets gained even more autonomy. Through the 1970s, different corporations—from regional and national supermarkets to discount stores like Kmart and Walmart—tried to integrate food, clothing, health products, beauty items, electronics, and other product lines into one-stop shopping. This consumer format proved difficult until retailers teamed up with information and communication technology companies such as IBM and RCA. Bar codes, scanning equipment, computers, and communication networks improved upon earlier profit-making inefficiencies.
Harvesting data became as important as harvesting crops. Corporations monitored and analyzed everything—from potatoes in the ground to frozen french fries at the checkout stand. More Pop-Tarts, sugary cereals, and potato chips were packed onto shelves. Big pharma joined in, not only filling prescriptions, but also filling aisles with over-the-counter cold and flu remedies and pain relievers. Sam Walton’s recipe was logistics: getting even more products to more places. Walmart put an entire supermarket into its older discount store format. Walmart Supercenters carry 125,000 items, more than a 12-fold increase over what was considered “super” in the 1970s. Shoppers now take this massive overabundance for granted.
The federal government continued to play a role, too. In addition to subsidizing changes in transportation and suburban development, it helped finance the farming of commodity crops and created consumer relief programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). All of these efforts reinforced the prominence of mass-merchandising. SNAP benefits, for example, are used disproportionately at supermarkets and big-box stores, bolstering this aspect of the retail market. Likewise, agricultural subsidies neglect fruit and vegetable growers, and instead they mostly support growers of crops like corn and soybeans. These ingredients are turned into corn syrup and soybean oil to create the abundance of soda, chips, and other cheap foods saturating supermarket aisles.
While foods are not widgets, companies now design them to fit the high volume and high variety merchandising platforms. Hyper-processed foods can sit in warehouses and on shelves for weeks, months, or even years. The Twinkie experiment is only the most famous example. Unlike homemade cakes, Twinkies defy time, making them easier to ship, stock, and sell.
Yet even fresh foods have become caught in this web. The produce aisle used to be seasonal, but now supermarkets have grapes and blueberries in the winter and apples and pears in the spring. Global shipping, cold storage, and precision ripening means that the food system caters to demand beyond the most processed foods, as long as the items are amenable to the industrial paradigm.
Each fresh product has a unique supply chain. Tomatoes are harvested when they are green, because they travel better when they are not ripe. At some point between the field and the store, tomatoes are sprayed with ethylene gas, a plant hormone that ripens them. Tomatoes turn red without gaining their full burst of flavor, one of the reasons supermarket tomatoes taste and feel more like plastic than backyard garden varieties.
Bananas are one of the best-selling fruits, shipped from all over Central and South America in their bright green and starchy state. When they arrive to U.S. ports, they go to ripening rooms where heat and ethylene gas set the ripening in motion. Some stores want bananas yellow and ready for the shelves that day. Others want them greener, so they can keep bunches in the back and refill displays on demand.
What Will it Take to Solve the Food System’s Problems?
The values of the just-in-time food economy—abundance, convenience, and profit-making efficiency—permeate every aspect of the system: the treatment of workers; the applications of pesticides to protect agricultural output; the invention of unpronounceable ingredients as product fillers and preservatives to extend shelf life; and the uses of automation, refrigeration, and communication to control time and space in production, storage, and distribution.
As Instacart and other online grocery delivery services rushed to fill the gap between supermarkets and their customers during the pandemic, no comparable services—at least in terms of matching the sheer scale—have been established to eliminate food insecurity. In fact, as Janet Poppendieck discusses in her book Sweet Charity? (Penguin 1999), the emergency food bank system was never exclusively designed to eliminate hunger. Like other parts of the vital system, food banks serve the interests of the largest food manufacturers, processors, distributors, and retailers as an outlet for their waste and excess. Food banks are always at the whim of private donations, struggling to find new options as supply chains become leaner and emergencies accelerate the demand.
Most of the food system goes unnoticed until a disaster strikes and the world is turned upside down. Solving these food problems is not only about creating more supply chain flexibility and resilience during a global public health crisis. It is also about putting societal values front and center. It requires turning our collective attention to how vital infrastructures are built and finding ways to make health equality, food security, and environmental sustainability as mundane as the pursuit of economic efficiency.
Any opinions expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the authors and not the American Sociological Association.