Interview with Benjamin Lorr, Author of The Secret Life of Groceries

by Charles Platkin

Benjamin Lorr is a writer and the author of The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket. Released in September 2020, the book contains five years’ worth of research into the grocery industry, investigating food marketing, auditing, transportation, and more. Lorr also wrote Hell-Bent (released October 2012), a critically acclaimed exploration of the Bikram Yoga community that first detailed patterns of abuse and sexual misconduct by guru Bikram Choudhury.

Having studied environmental biology and creative writing at Columbia University, Lorr was a science teacher in the New York City public school system for eight years before moving to Eskolta School Research and Design, where he helped to improve educational resources for students in urban public schools. As part of his research for The Secret Life of Groceries, he worked at numerous grocery stores, including a Whole Foods in New York City. Today, he is a full-time writer based in Brooklyn, New York. 

Thank you so much for taking time to answer our questions. Your previous book was Hell-Bent, which “explores a fascinating, often surreal world at the extremes of American yoga.” So, how did you come to write about supermarkets?  

It all flowed fairly directly in my mind. In Hell-Bent, I focused on the world of Bikram yoga—this intense, dedicated, ultimately abusive and cult-like community—to understand the larger rise of yoga in America. There was a moment in Brooklyn where suddenly everyone seemed to be walking around with yoga mats slung across their backs, and otherwise-jaded nine-to-five professionals went wide-eyed and giddy, signing up for two-hundred-hour  teacher training programs. I wanted to understand what was going on—and that exploration became Hell-Bent. 

With food, I saw something similar. Growing up, the supermarket was drab; going there was almost definitionally a chore right up there with taking out the garbage. But somewhere along the line that changed. I started encountering people—grown adults—who were just as wide-eyed and giddy about Trader Joe’s as the Bikramites were about their yoga. People proselytizing about a grocery store! And this dovetailed with a larger shift in food culture. We went from a place where mangoes in the produce section were exceptional oddities to a world with twenty different mango-flavored snack products on the shelves ranging from salsa to freeze-dried wafers. Where once Julia Child had helmed a single direct-to-video cooking show, we now had two twenty-four-hour channels devoted entirely to food. The grocery store seemed like a good entrypoint to try and understand these shifts. 

I’ll also add, as someone who writes immersively, that there needs to be an element of joy in reporting. I did gobs of yoga when researching Hell-Bent, hours-upon-hours of it, multiple teacher trainings, yoga competitions, you name it. I would never have done any of that without the book. But it was driven by real curiosity! Sort of like indulging an alternate self, somewhere between going undercover and performance art. And for me, the grocery store offered the same allure. I love them! I head to grocery stores on vacation and wander their aisles when bored at home. Which is perhaps to say, writing a book is a lot of work, and the subject has to intrigue me on multiple levels.  

I read about some of the interesting experiences you had while researching your book, The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket, from riding the highways with truckers to discovering human rights violations related to commodity fishing in Asia.  Can you talk about some of these experiences, including your work at actual supermarkets (including Whole Foods and others)? I realize you wrote a whole chapter on this, but I’d like to give readers a feel for your experience.   

 Yes! As I mentioned before, I’m trying to write first-person immersive non-fiction. So that means getting out there and doing things. For groceries, sure, it meant some obvious stuff, brief stints as an employee at two retail chains, but also a ton of less intuitive work. For instance, trying to understand the system of audits that undergird certifications (like USDA Organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Friendly), I ended up going to a USDA Avian Influenza training, a sweeping overview of the entire poultry industry that was geared to industrial veterinarians and had to be presented in a way  that wasn’t going to patronize them. That program was a goldmine of insider information, and from there I headed directly to a group of animal rights activists who helped me break into a series of factory farms. Now I am seeing the same types of industrial farms detailed at the AI training without any supervision. In a world as secretive as the grocery, this type of first-hand access was critical. I’d say it really defines the book. From riding with truckers who described a system of debt peonage, to following an entrepreneur as she tries to get her product on shelves, to going to the very bottom of the seafood commodity chain and looking at the role of trafficked labor and modern slavery—by talking to those trafficked men, retracing their migration routes, climbing aboard similar boats to report on their experience with as many details as I could gather.

You’ve said the following: “The miracle of the supermarket has never been more apparent. Like the doctors and nurses who care for the sick, suddenly the men and women who stock our shelves and operate our warehouses are understood as ‘essential’ workers, providing a quality of life we all too easily take for granted. But the sad truth is that the grocery industry has been failing these workers for decades.”  Can you explain and discuss? 

There were those days last March and April when the reality of COVID-19 was crashing down where I think it became really obvious which parts of our lives were essential and which parts could be put on hold. It was a moment of temporary clarity. And the grocery industry emerged as an anchor,  providing a quality of life—abundance and choice unprecedented in human history at the lowest prices in the world—that we had previously taken almost completely for granted. And yet, when you look at the men and women who fuel this miracle, you realize they are conscripted in a giant race to the bottom, driven by that same price competition and promise of abundance that we find so attractive. Convenience for the consumer aligns with lean efficiency as a  corporate virtue until it translates to employees, whose quality of life gets whittled down more and more  until, at the very bottom of the commodity chain, it becomes inhumane. 

I read this in an NPR interview with you:  “…food that allows us to demonstrate who we want to be — whether that is worldly and sophisticated, thin and athletic, decadent and indulgent, ecologically virtuous, connected to our ancestors, distinct from our kin, etc., down the line of human aspiration.” Can you please talk about the ways that food influences, and is influenced by our everyday lives?

Yes, this is exactly what I was getting at in that first question. Growing up, food was food. Sure it held a few signifiers around wealth and status, but those were fairly simple and straightforward. But in the last thirty to forty years, our relationship to food sort of exploded. It became this intense reservoir of meaning offering a blitz of signifiers around almost every form of human aspiration. I can demonstrate that I’m healthy, indulgent, smart, unique—or at least that my colon biota is unique—caring, compassionate, efficient, or altruistic through my food choices.  And because food is a basic need, it circumvents our larger cultural distaste materialistic consumption, so we can literally have our cake and let it signify too. This is more than just sociological mumbo-jumbo. I think it has implications for food policy and things like obesity, diabetes, and healthy eating campaigns. Too often, dominant foodie culture, especially as related to health and virtue, is actually a signifier thattrumpets our sophistication and education and acts as cultural capital, but falls on deaf ears to many others. Thinking about the meaning in food might help target those outside the bubble who don’t care about the signifiers but who might still benefit from better health. 

The way people get their food has clearly shifted dramatically over the years, from direct purchasing from producers, to general stores, to multi-department supermarkets. However, recent years have seen a growth in the number of people who are once again purchasing directly from farms and producers. Do you expect that the current interest in farm-to-table and farmers’ markets will have a lasting impact on the grocery business? Where do you see supermarkets in, say, ten years?  Delivery only? Automation? Where is the growth? What about access to food for marginalized communities? 

I certainly hope so! I love farm markets and direct purchasing from producers, and I see them offering a vital antidote to the problems around trust and control that plague our certification programs. Real relationships with real people will forever make a better world than trying to police people with audits. Sure, you can probably still be gamed by them, but there is much less waste in the gaming! On the other hand, those purveyors account for only a tiny fraction of our grocery spending, something like one fifth of one percent. And there is a reason for that. They don’t offer the convenience and regularity, most people seem to want. Scale allows for tremendous value. Aggregators and wholesalers may be invisible to us, but they are providing a real service. If direct purchasing or farm markets can only compete because people making them a lifestyle choice, or choosing to add in value through their time, I don’t see them evolving into viable alternatives. I do have big hopes for technology coupled with smart design in this area, but I haven’t seen anyone crack it yet. 

Is there anything that seriously surprised you during the research and writing of this book? With all you know and all you’ve discovered about supermarkets, what scares you most?

What scares me? Just as with climate change, that we are capable of clearly seeing our flaws as a species but are incapable of acting on them. The grocery industry offers an intense microcosm for issues around labor—for understanding how serving consumer demands can create a seemingly inescapable race to the bottom. We are willing to dehumanize people we depend on by providing them with jobs that are not compatible with basic dignity. I end the book by saying, “It’s not that we are what we eat, but that we eat the way we are.” I believe that. Our food system, warts and all, is a reflection of our values. But I am an optimist and I believe we can change who we are. Values shift. Sometimes rapidly. That’s why I wrote the book. 

Did writing this book change the way you do your own food shopping? 

The answer I want to give is no. I don’t believe we can buy our way into solutions. I don’t believe that my consumer choices can create a better world. I don’t believe we can solve issues in our food system by thinking about diet. The idea that I can buy something for myself and also make the world better is very seductive—but also unbelievably self-serving if you look at it with any level of objectivity. It might work in a smaller world. Unfortunately, there are too many layers to our commodity chain. And the market is ingenious at co-opting our good intentions, delivering us the pleasure of virtue without ensuring any meaningful reform. So, while the writing did not change my grocery shopping, it did change my advocacy. I am a diehard union man now. I want to think of ground-up ways to involve workers in certifying the products they make; they are the real experts. And I want solutions from big actors: reforming the trade treaties that underpin our globalized world, adding enforcement teeth, and funding nation-state police investigators to catch violators. 

But like I said, that’s the answer I want to give. In reality, I steer away from Thai shrimp now. It may well be counterproductive, punishing Thai industry for the very reforms it needed to make. But I also can’t get some of the images and voices I encountered out of my head, and I would prefer not to encounter them while I eat shrimp.   

In your book, you write about the difficulty of getting a new product into supermarkets. Do you think the difficulty of this process has limited healthy food access, especially in poor communities? 

Yes. The pay-to-play system that determines which products get space on supermarket shelves absolutely shapes the type of food available, as well as the marketing schemes behind them. It increases the need to get venture capital funding for new products, which, of course, means selecting the people who can navigate those channels and appeal to those funders. I think the issue is probably less about the actual health quality of those foods than it is about how they are marketed and the demographics they target. I have a hard time believing that venture capital is going to get behind a healthy snack targeting recent migrants in the San Joaquin Valley or my former high school students in Bushwick. 

The following is a quote from an article in the New York Times. Can you please explain, expand and or discuss? 

“On the one hand, the supermarket is the most banal, mundane place,” said Benjamin Lorr, the author of the new book, The Secret Life of Groceries: The Dark Miracle of the American Supermarket, standing in the produce aisle of a Trader Joe’s in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, a short stroll from his apartment. But sometimes,” he continued, “I walk in and I feel like I’m tripping. I’m in this surreal experience of abundance and choice. It’s like Alice in the Wonderland for adults.” 

Well in a way, my whole goal is to get other people to see the grocery world in those terms. It is a miracle. Awesome in the essential non-slang sense. We should be overwhelmed and humbled, probably embarrassed by the riches inside the plainest Food Lion in the land. There is a Rabbi Abraham Heschel quote I’ve been repeating a lot these days. “God is a challenge speaking to us in the language of human situations.” I’m fairly secular, but the Old Testament biblical response to a miracle makes a lot of sense here. Miracles spark awe, demand sacrifice, and inspire us to become better versions of ourselves. Which is precisely what we need when we think about reforming our food system. 

FACT SHEET

Grew up in: Silver Spring, Maryland 

City or town you call home: Brooklyn, NY 

As a child you wanted to be: Farmer, Vet, President, Writer 

Background and education: Environmental Biology at Columbia University for undergrad

One word you would use to describe our food system: Microcosm 

Foodie hero: Michael Pollan, but he is more than a foodie. Also Eric Schlosser. 

Your breakfast this morning: Two pieces of toast with orange marmalade so far.

Worst summer job: Bike courier in DC. Hot, exhausting, paid shit. 

Your proudest moment: Finishing my first book and realizing it might bring real change to that community was pretty big.  

What’s your motto? “Wherever life has planted you, bloom.” 

Best advice you have been given: From yoga, but really for life, “Go to class, but go easy on yourself when you get there” 

Favorite food: Blueberries 

Favorite ingredient: Well, I put tons of olive oil into everything. 

Last meal on Earth: Whatever I have before I die. 

Food policy social media must follow:  Really enjoy Dr. Sarah Taber (@SarahTaber_bww), Sarah Mock (@sarah_k_mock) and @GroceryNerd

Photo credit: Lucy Walters

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