Shopping for Thanksgiving--and all the holiday feasts at this time of year--inevitably means spending a lot of time in supermarkets. Even with a dedication to spending more of my time on the gatherer end of the Hunter-Gatherer Continuum means that I still find myself shopping at what I would call the Big 3 supermarkets in our area: P&C, Price Chopper, and Wegmans.
As I've sought to do more and more of my shopping at our local food Co-op I've become interested in the growing and dominating presence of "big box" supermarkets. Wegmans it seems is becoming Central New York's most notable export. A good friend in Baltimore told me last week that entry into the newest Wegmans supermarket (number 69) required tickets! That's how popular Wegmans is. There is no denying that Wegmans is an impressive place--especially when compared to its smaller competitors--if convenience, the perception of choice and one-stop shopping are your primary concerns.
What I hadn't realized is that Price Chopper and P&C are also Upstate New York originals--at least they were birthed here. Reading their histories from their websites is instructive. One learns that P&C stands for "producers and consumers" and was formed as a cooperative to connect buyers with local producers. Price Chopper, began as Central Market (now the name of their in-store brand), and had several initiatives in their early years that actively supported local farmers in order to provide the best produce and freshest eggs possible to its customers. Though Price Chopper is still family owned (as is Wegmans) P&C has been sold several times over its history and is now owned by a company in Pennsylvania.
As I read the histories of the Big 3 markets, I couldn't help but wonder where it all went awry. In the end supermarkets are about growth and profit and both of these are challenging in the current economic environment. And while all three do much to "give back" to the local community (wherever that may be for each market) there is a sense that they have very little connection to the community.
If anything, I think these markets try to foster a sense of community and producer-consumer intimacy that rings false. I'm tired of having supermarket employees tell me to send an email to "customer care" to request a food item I would like to see on the shelves. I'm tired of being told that, despite the gleaming "butcher-like" meat counters, that buying a few skin-on chicken thighs from hormone-free chicken is impossible because there is no price code. I'm tired of being led to believe that I can get what I want at these palaces of convenience when that is not actually a possibility.
I want to believe that bigger and better can really exist for the good of the consumer as well as the corporation. These stores have immense power--particularly in the ability to support local economies beyond employing local workers and providing scholarships for college-bound students. Just think of the impact these stores could have if they sought more local food sources in addition to the small dairy that provides the hormone free milk and eggnog and the occasional specialty cereal producer.
I know, I know, small farmers would be hard pressed to supply the volume that these big markets need but that doesn't mean they should be bypassed all together. And what about the mid-size farms that dot our area--as Dan Barber wrote in in his NY Times Op-ed piece (reg. required), that is a demographic of the farming world that has enormous potential. Wouldn't it be great if Central/Upstate New York could be famous for exporting not just gleaming supermarkets but an ethos that tied each market to its community in meaningful cultural and economic ways?
A girl's gotta hope. In the meantime, I'll keep shopping the co-op. growing my own, supporting our farmers' markets and badgering our Big 3 markets to read their histories and take some notes. Consider this an open invitation to join me.