The Secret Life of Groceries

A review

In the introduction to The Secret Life of Groceries, Benjamin Lorr makes a profound claim about groceries:

[Grocery] isn’t about food, it never has been about food—food is the business of eating—grocery, we’ll see, [is] completely different; it’s the business of desire.

Before this book, I had never really thought too deeply about the experience of shopping for groceries. After reading the book, though, it will be quite hard to walk through a grocery store without a deeper curiosity and appreciation for the complexities – economically, logistically, culturally – of that buying experience.

In the book, which is part investigative journalism and part meditation on American culture, Lorr documents how the grocery business works, from the retail experience all the way down through the supply chain. In doing so, he covers a massive amount of ground. He discusses the (surprisingly modern and uniquely American) growth of the grocery industry and why Trader Joe’s became a unique success. He shows how the trucking industry has become “structurally vampiric.” He dives into the heartbreaking business of the pressures in the supply chain: marketing, food processing, and farming. The book even exposes the reader to the Thai shrimping business’s widespread practice of modern slavery and human trafficking. The stories he tells are touching and, at times, devastating.

If you’re inclined to think that the book is targeted toward changing your buying behavior, though, you’d be surprised. In one of the most intimate passages in the book, Lorr opens up about his own mindset:

Then it hits me one day as I’m thinking about audits: I want to use purchases to create a better world. I take it as almost as a given, this belief that through shopping I can somehow contribute to the general uplift of mankind. But what type of sense does that make? Buying something for myself to serve others? … I begin to understand: third-party certification does not exist to solve a problem in the world, but to solve one inside of me. Their primary purpose is not to make the world a better place. It is to make the grocery store a safer place for me to shop. They lower my barriers to buy by promising me two things I crave: a sense of control and a sense of destiny.

Indeed, Lorr’s point to all of this isn’t that grocery stores need reform, but rather to emphasize that groceries reflect our society. As he observes: “the great lesson of my time with groceries is that we have got the food system we deserve. The adage is all wrong: it’s not that we are what we eat, it’s that we eat the way we are. Retail grocery is a reflection.”

The book’s subject matter is complicated and nuanced, and Lorr’s voice is powerful. Lorr’s writing is also rather entertaining; there were moments when I genuinely chortled at an observation. It’s a serious book, but not completely academic.

Ultimately, Lorr makes the argument that grocery stores serve as a mirror of our society. His book tries to lift the mirror so we can peer into it. It’s worth taking a look.