Photo courtesy flickr/Marco Verch

Shopping for Change: A Virtual Trip to the Supermarket, and 4 Key Takeaways

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | February 25, 2019, 11:28 am EDT
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The average US supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. With all that choice, you’d think it would be easy to make day-to-day food-buying decisions that are good for people, animals, and the planet. But a trip to a virtual supermarket in a new online feature shows why that isn’t necessarily true, and what it will take to make real change in our food and farming system.

But first, a confession of sorts: I shop for groceries as many as four times a week, frequenting multiple grocery stores, a local orchard and farm stand, and one of the country’s top farmers markets. I’m a little obsessive, and I like what I like. But I’m also hyper-aware of issues in the food system, so I look at labels, seek to “know my farmer(s),” and fork over more money for food that is in line with my values.

Overall, I feel pretty good about how I wield my personal buying power when it comes to food. And yet, I’m very aware that my choices at the checkout stand—even in combination with millions of other American consumers—aren’t enough. Because even for those of us with the income, education, and interest to make these choices, there is a lot about our food production system that remains hidden from view, and a lot of choices that aren’t ours to make. Moreover, we know everyone doesn’t have the same wherewithal to make the choices I do.

And that’s why my colleagues and I at the Union of Concerned Scientists created Shopping for Change. This new online feature lets users wheel virtual shopping carts around a virtual supermarket to uncover some of the actual stories of our food system—from farm to fork—that lurk behind the packages on the shelves. In the process, we hope to help more of our fellow shoppers understand that system, with all its problems and opportunities, and see how they can help push it in the right direction.

Why the supermarket?

Like me, you may get your groceries from many sources. Farmers markets saw explosive growth in recent years, and online food shopping, though still a tiny share of the market, is increasing. But even after a decade of decline, the supermarket still reigns supreme—according to a 2018 survey by the Food Marketing Institute, 58 percent of shoppers say it’s their go-to place to shop for food.

(If you want to really geek out on the history and evolution of supermarkets, see this fascinating 2015 paper from University of Rochester economics and marketing professor Paul Ellickson.)

With most of us shopping there—and spending some $682 billion a year—we set our food system story in the supermarket. And then we filled it with some of the most commonly-purchased fresh food items and pantry staples, which also reflect a range of issues.

Take breakfast cereal, for example—nearly nine out of 10 Americans eat it sometimes, and it’s the go-to breakfast for almost a third of us, which makes the cereal bowl a common place we encounter grains like corn and wheat…and the environmental problems they can cause. By contrast, beans and lentils are eaten less frequently, but offer farmers a range of benefits, from diversifying the landscape and building healthy soil to improving their bottom lines.

Our supermarket experience tackles questions about other foods: eggs (what does “cage-free” really mean?), meat (what is its impact on the climate?), fruits (can we protect workers from pesticides?) and vegetables (how can we help people eat more of them?).

There are also some non-food stops on our supermarket tour. We visit the dumpster to look at the problem of food waste, for example, and the back office to explore issues of power, ownership, and equity in the food system.

The food-buying bottom line

We hope the result is helpful to people when they’re thinking about the foods they buy, as well as the public policies we all support with our tax dollars (and our votes). So as you take our shopping cart for a spin and share it with your friends, relatives, neighbors, and co-workers, here are four key things we hope you’ll get from it:

TAKEAWAY #1: Consumers need to do their homework. Labels—fair trade, organic, cage-free, and the like—can be hard to sort out, and some are more meaningful than others. Dig in and do your research. We offer resources with the “receipt” you’ll get when you check out of our virtual supermarket.

TAKEAWAY #2: In the food system, everything is connected. While our virtual supermarket necessarily deals with food items and issues one at a time, the food system doesn’t work that way. Fairness and justice for workers, profitability for farmers, and affordability for consumers are inextricably linked. My colleague Rafter Ferguson recently dealt masterfully with those linkages in this blog post. You should read it.

TAKEAWAY #3: Large buyers have more power to drive change. Food purchasing decisions aren’t just made individually, consumer by consumer. They’re also made by large institutions like universities, hospitals, and corporate campuses. And, for that matter, by supermarket chains and other retailers. If you don’t see what you’re looking for where you shop, ask for it, or look elsewhere. And for more on opportunities to drive change through institutional food purchasing, read our 2017 report, Purchasing Power, and check out the Good Food Purchasing Program.

TAKEAWAY #4: Systemic change also requires policy solutions. Myriad public policies shape our food system—and the choices we have available to us as consumers. This includes, for example: laws and regulations governing everything from pesticide use to food labels; government carrots and sticks for various foods (like vegetable subsidies and soda taxes); and even decisions about which food and agriculture questions get studied using public research dollars.

And this was one of the stickiest issues we encountered in designing this feature—how to deliver useful consumer information without suggesting that our food system’s problems can be solved if we all just make the right choices at the supermarket checkout. As our team wrestled with that, a colleague unearthed an old Economist magazine article in which the writer Michael Pollan discussed this exact topic:

The $30 billion organic-food industry “was created by consumers voting with their dollars,” says Michael Pollan, the author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (2006), another of this year’s crop of books on food politics. Normally, he says, a sharp distinction is made between people’s actions as citizens, in which they are expected to consider the well-being of society, and their actions as consumers, which are assumed to be selfish. Food choices appear to reconcile the two.

He’s right, of course. But even with food choices, the reality is that we’re usually wearing one hat or the other—consumer or citizen—at any given time. The more we can learn to merge those roles when thinking about food, the sooner we’ll create a fairer, healthier, and more sustainable food system for the future.

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