Supermarket USA: Food Power in the Cold War Farms Race

Was the modern American supermarket a pawn in the battle between capitalism and communism during the Cold War? Was the battle strictly between free enterprise and a controlled economy OR did the Americans tip the scales? Shane Hamilton poses these and other questions in what I consider to be a masterpiece in the history-of-food genre. Hamilton is particularly good at mixing historical scholarship with an understanding of how entities such as markets and supply chains work in the real world. The title of the book, Supermarket USA, comes from an American exhibition by the same name at the Zagreb International Trade Fair in 1957 in Yugoslavia.

While I was still teaching at the University of Georgia, I came across a book titled Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy, which was featured on a Page-a-Day calendar of all places. I remember being impressed with the author’s understanding of food distribution. From time-to-time I would say to myself, “but he hasn’t thought of such-and-such” only to be proven wrong two or three pages later. Somewhere in the middle of the book I flipped to the overleaf to find out where this author was located. It turned out that Shane Hamilton was in the History Department right across campus. We got to know each other better over a cup of coffee at Starbucks in the Learning Center. I later invited him to give a seminar in my department on food distribution. We tend to disagree on matters pertaining to the food movement, but I have the ultimate respect for his scholarship and his writing.

I have been waiting for Supermarket USA ever since I first met Shane. It seems like it has been a forthcoming book for a long time. Once again, while reading it I found myself raising questions on one page only to have them answered two or three pages later. I also recognized myself as an unwitting player in the industrialized food system that Hamilton so skillfully describes. While the book is directed primarily at Cold War and what he terms the Farms Race, I will focus my comments primarily on his discussion of American supermarkets and processed food.

“the American supermarket should be understood not just as retail space but as the endpoint of a supply chain dependent upon industrialized agriculture.” This statement found in the Introduction is one of the two major premises of the book. At the heart of the book’s message is an understanding of the supply chain, and few outsiders comprehend its inner workings like Hamilton. At one end is the supermarket which dictates everything that happens in the chain all the way back to the farm. At the other end is the farmer who is increasingly becoming a cog in an industrial machine. In the battle for the world, the Capitalists fought the Communists in an ever-increasing Farms Race, just as significant as the more visible Arms Race, for the hearts, minds and stomachs of the world population. Key to the success of any supply chain is buy-in by the consumer to make the supermarket and thus the rest of the chain profitable.

For fourteen years of my research life I was a member of an interdisciplinary postharvest research team studying the supply chain for selected fruits and vegetables. Such chains operate independently from each other until they merge at what we called a point of integration. It is at these points that power is concentrated. The most potent point of integration in the handling of fresh produce is the supermarket, specifically the buyer for a specific chain. The importance of this link is highlighted in the many versions of Postharvest Handling: A Systems Approach, Grocery, and Hamilton’s earlier guest post on this site.

“Especially important was the breeding of cultivars that produced the characteristics most aesthetically appealing to supermarket shoppers—particularly a dark-green pod holding large, perfectly spherical peas.” Breeding of crop plants and farm animals is a major mission of the land-grant system performed in Colleges of Agriculture across the country. Such breeding programs are funded by state legislatures and the federal government to improve the commercial viability of crops and livestock produced in a state. These programs lead to the standardization of items available in the American supermarket including those peas described above and the Clemson spineless okra found in the frozen food section. Hamilton points out that selective breeding ultimately limits the variety of items available to the consumer and creates winners and losers on the farm and among distributors. For example, the only type of apple available to consumers in many American supermarkets for many years was Red Delicious. Organic items had difficulty finding shelf space in produce sections until late in the 20th Century.

 “in the wake of the Chicken of Tomorrow contests, government researchers, private agribusiness, and land-grant universities had cooperated closely to transform chicken from an expensive Sunday treat into the nation’s cheapest everyday meat.” More evidence of collaboration between industry and government is provided with respect to the lowly chicken. A major effort was undertaken by the poultry industry and Poultry Science Departments across the country to redesign the chicken as another effort at standardization. The scrawny bird was bred to have more meat while requiring less feed leading to a cheaper product in the modern supermarket.

Old-timers tell us that flavor was sacrificed in this effort as highlighted in the book The Dorito Effect. I can’t attest to the loss of flavor (I’m only in my late 60s), but I do remember that we rarely had chicken when I was growing up because it was so expensive. It later became a family staple as I attended high school and college. Hamilton informs us that it was John H. Davis who coined the term agribusiness as a professor at the Harvard Business School in the 1950s. It is this collaboration between agribusiness and the land-grant colleges that leads to the author’s suspicion of “free enterprise” at work.

“In the United States, supermarket promoters successfully touted the ‘supermarket revolution’ as a product of ‘free enterprise’ even as they depended on massive state support for their industrial agricultural supply chains.” So, we learn in Supermarket USA that “free enterprise” was not really free and that the “supermarket revolution” was really the result of a state-sponsored effort to promote agribusiness. A different view of the advent of supermarkets in the 1930s comes from Baking Powder Wars. In it the transition is described as moving away from the “barrels of food with flies swirling around them” to chain stores with “hygienically packaged brand-name foods with individual price tags on open shelves.”

I can clearly be found in the effort to develop more uniform fruit in the produce section of the supermarket. One of my roles in this process was to trace quality changes in fresh peaches and tomatoes in the supply chain from orchard or field through distribution and to the supermarket as described in the first edition of Postharvest Handling. I was also present in variety trials to eliminate onion selections that were too pungent to make the cut as a Vidalia onion. In addition, my lab evaluated the acceptability of new blueberry varieties developed to withstand mechanical harvesting. The kicker was that these blueberries popped in the mouth when fresh and failed to release their juices when cooked in a pie. I thought I was working for better quality and more acceptable, less expensive produce for the consumer, but Hamilton suggests that my research was in collusion with agribusiness.

“Through 1951 and 1952, PACA continued to face the reality that farming in Venezuela was entirely unlike farming in Iowa.” One very interesting story in the book is about Nelson Rockefeller and how he tried to establish an American supermarket chain in Venezuela. Rather than trying to understand the way food was grown and distributed in the country, he assumed that Venezuelans would embrace American values and habits. It was a colossal failure and illustrative of many American projects, both commercial and governmental, that rush in with a can-do-but-know-not attitude. Robert Paarleberg wrote about the ineffective attempts to introduce organic farming methods into Africa that looked much like subsistence farming in his insightful book Food Politics. Projects that take into consideration local customs and culture with direct collaboration are much more likely to succeed. Both high-tech failures and the use of appropriate technology are highlighted in the classic The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer.

                      

“Most American shoppers at midcentury, however, were not looking for participatory democracy when they entered the supermarket. Most wanted affordable food, reliable quality, and a wide array of fresh and processed foods under one roof.” The United States was not so successful exporting the concept of the American supermarket to other countries during the Cold-War era. Industrial agriculture, however, did triumph in efficiently producing food both at home and to a lesser extent around the world for the masses at affordable prices. The modern supermarket was the perfect vehicle to match the habits and tendencies of a changing American culture. Some of these changes were induced by clever marketing, others by increased standards of living, and still others by much broader socio-cultural movements. Hamilton suggests that supermarkets lost their luster as American consumers became more interested in what was in their food and where it came from.

Despite efforts by back-to-the-farm programs, development of food co-ops, and opening of local farmers markets, the supermarket continues to be the clear winner as the main source for providing food for the American consumer. Supermarkets continue to morph into what they perceive its consumers want. Think Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Fresh Market and a host of alternative chains who have adopted the supermarket model. Companies that accurately reflect changing trends in shopping patterns survive. Those chains who do not adapt go under. New challenges face supermarkets today, and it will be interesting to see if they can maintain its prominent place.

Whole Foods too

Although state and federal funding for agricultural research has been primarily aimed at production of plant crops and farm animals, American consumers have opted for the convenience of processed food. Contributing factors have included heavy advertising by Big Food, homemakers moving into the workforce and a desire for more free time to engage in outdoor leisure activities and preoccupation with electronic media.

I grew up in a small prairie town just north of the North Dakota border. We grew most of our own fruits and vegetables, bought our meat at a butcher shop and got non-perishable items down the street at a small grocery store. When I was nine we spent a year in Florida, returned to Canada for two years, and then came back to South Carolina. My family became serious supermarket shoppers in the US. Dad stopped growing our own fresh produce. In the early 1990s I was fortunate to travel to Australia for six months. My wife and I bought food from separate shoppes reminiscent of the way food was sold in my Canadian childhood. On a trip back down under eight years later, I visited a small, by American standards, supermarket that had replaced the individual food shoppes. The American supermarket was beginning to take hold, and I understand that Walmart is making inroads in many locations around the world.

Fault lines

Supermarket USA is a magnificent book that has changed the perspective on how I view food and the land-grant college system that has been such an integral part of my life for over 50 years. Although the author is careful not to express his opinions on the revelations he provides in this book, it is not too difficult to see where he is going. In most of these areas, we can agree on the issue but have different points of view.

  • I like his emphasis on supply chains. He unveils what used to be called the middle man is now the supply chain. Millions of workers occupy the supply chain, and many of them deserve a raise at a potential cost of an increase in the price of food.
  • Food distribution and today’s supermarket would not be what it is without major state and federal funding of what has become industrial agriculture. It is also what helped Americans to win the Farms Race and was also a theme Anna Zeide advanced in Canned. Hamilton and Zeide tend to see this support as an unfair advantage for multinational food corporations. I see the collaboration between industry and government as a strength of democracy and not a threat.
  • Nelson Rockefeller and his Venezuela experience demonstrate the dangers of exporting American expertise without an adequate understanding of the cultural environment of the host country. Surely, we can learn from these experiences to develop appropriate technology to help meet the needs of consumers in other lands.

Next week: Impacts of US/African collaborative research

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