We need to talk about the grocery store
And more specifically, your complaints about it on NextDoor.
You there—I’m talking to you. Yes, you. The person currently airing their grievances about the “unacceptable out-of-stock-situation” at your local grocery store on Nextdoor.
I’d like to talk to you for just a moment, if you don’t mind.
Pull your cart over. Let’s gab.
Sorry about that. Had to do it. But listen.
I understand that you’re very upset that your local Kroger did not have an item you were looking for today. That’s frustrating! Instead of keeping it to yourself, however, you’ve logged into Nextdoor—a site I use to keep tabs on lost dogs and changes to recycling pickup that has the unwanted side effect of exposing me to some of the ugliest impulses of ‘polite’ society—to monologue about how unacceptable it is, to lambast employees and management and the government and all manner of things.
I need you to understand something.
You are not going hungry.
This is not—despite your unsubtle intimations to the contrary—Soviet Russia. You are not waiting in a bread line. I don’t mean to imply that people aren’t; in fact, food pantries are doing record business at the moment. But that is not what you’re facing. Store shelves are not empty; you, personally, are not coming home empty-handed.
You had to go to a second store to find a particular item that you wanted. This is not worthy of public complaint. This is not a scandal. This is not a story that you should be sharing with anyone, except perhaps someone who was expecting you to arrive home with that particular item at 5:15; you should text that person and tell them that you will be home at 5:35, because you had to drive to a second grocery store and there is, in fact, a second well-stocked grocery store that has the item two miles away.
You should not end those texts with periods. It feels unnaturally curt. I know you will, and I cannot do anything about that.
I do not feel that your outrage is justified, nor do I believe that your personal experience as a bagboy in 1963 makes you an expert on the operations of a modern-day grocery store. I am not offering this up as some ageist hypothetical; this is literally a scenario that I saw on Nextdoor several days ago:
Sir? Do you understand how different grocery stores and supply chains are in the 58 years since you worked at this location? In 1963, there were fifteen items available at this grocery store, or any grocery store:
Heinz baked beans
Cream of Wheat
Sugar (burlap bag)
Whole lard (?)
Candy cigarettes (for kids)
Sanka (also for kids)
Chicken (livers only)
Pepsi (wasn’t okay even then)
It was very easy for the store staff—including then-child laborers like yourself—to keep the shelves stocked fully in 1963 because of this small number of items, and because they were all produced at a factory directly behind the store.
I don’t mean to pick on this person specifically, because there are many people my own age or younger airing similar complaints, but I really did feel the need to stress something in service of my larger point today, and that is this:
The American grocery store in the year 2021 is a fucking miracle, one that exceeds most midcentury visions of what The Year 2021 might look like. No, we don’t have flying cars or robot maids, but we have a staggering array of items readily available for easy purchase in almost any location where someone who posts angrily on Nextdoor is likely to live. You can walk into any one of these stores and find fresh produce year-round, seriously good cheese, twenty-eight different varieties of coffee in every coffee-delivery method from whole bean to ground to concentrate to K-Cup to transdermal patch, gingerbread-flavored Mountain Dew, and frozen pizzas that are better than anything any king of England ever ate. Did you know that there’s a frozen pizza with a croissant crust now? Have you seen this shit? Croissant crust! You’re logging onto a website to complain that your preferred brand of soup or whatever was out of stock and you’re doing it from the land of milk and honey and croissant-crust pizza.
It’s not just the selection, either. It’s the shocking ease of it all. You can have groceries delivered to your door, or your car. You can walk into the store and walk out with a cart full of groceries without ever needing to actually interact with a single person; I often do this while stepping around you as you complain to an underpaid employee about the soup thing.
The grocery store is a marvel and you do not appreciate it nearly enough.
Also? Let’s be clear. The shelves are not empty right now.
Do you know how I know this?
Well, first of all—I go to the grocery store quite often. I really enjoy it, to be honest. This is something I did not know about myself until the pandemic hit and it was no longer feasible to stop at the grocery store on my way home three times a week in search of some oddball ingredient for whatever dumb shit I’ve conjured up to cook this week. I find the grocery store a very pleasant place to walk around and so I go there often. I actually go to the one you’re complaining about! The shelves are not empty there. Here, look. Here’s a picture I took just the other day.
Not terribly empty! Yes, there is the stray item that is out of stock, but I assure you that this is normal, and that it is something that happened with regularity before last year. No store is able to predict with absolute certainty what items will sell when, but they mostly do their best.
Do you know how else I know that store shelves are not empty?
Because they actually were last year! It was a thing that happened, and we all saw it. We understood why it was happening, too; a combination of panic-buying and supply-chain and labor disruptions unseen on a broad scale in any of our lives. It sucked very deeply but most of us accepted that it was happening and we tried to learn how to bake bread for a couple months. Here, here’s a picture from March 14th, 2020:
Not great, and also: not at all what we’re seeing right now!
Now, I will concede that there are some minor bumps and inconveniences right now. It is okay to feel an appropriate degree of frustration. It is okay to be disappointed if you had your heart set on getting Wendy’s today and Wendy’s turns out not to be open; their spicy chicken sandwich is really good. I assure you that the workers at that Wendy’s—or any other fast-food, grocery, or retail job—have gone through much worse than chicken sandwich denial lately, but I will acknowledge your right to be mildly disappointed.
This is not a sign of society collapsing.
This is a sign that we are in a period of massive adjustment after one of the biggest social upheavals in generations. Like—close to a million people died. Just in this country alone. Let’s not lose sight of that. Frankly, that should mess a few things up, just so we don’t roller-blade past the immensity of the tragedy so easily. Millions more have had their lives upended—caregivers lost, careers upended, priorities wholly rearranged. A lot of bad shit happened, and it is going to take some time to sort that out. When you look at it that way, it is frankly remarkable how much is actually still available. Yes, you might need to go to a second store for soup, and you might need to start your Christmas shopping a little earlier this year and some specific thing you want might not be available at all.
But maybe you need to take a look around at all the full shelves there are around you, and be grateful both that they’re here and that you’re here to look at them.
Also—and I’ll let you go after this—if you’re complaining about Kroger and saying huffily that you’re going to take your business to another store, but that store is also a Kroger? Then I really don’t think you understand how protests work.
Anyways, lemme just scoot past you here.
I’m gonna get me one of those croissant pizzas.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
Borrowing from the comments on my Facebook post of this article:
"Nextdoor is the 'Oops! All Comments' of the internet."
*waves hi from an anti-hunger nonprofit*
We are definitely busy right now, though mercifully not as busy as we were in a lot of 2020.
If you want to help, especially as we get into the holiday season, which is traditionally very busy regardless of *gestures broadly*, plug your zip code in here and donate to or volunteer with the food bank that pops up!