How do they do it? Week after week, giant suburban supermarkets mail us flyers
advertising free food.
This week it's steak, potatoes, bread, chicken wings, frozen fish filets to name
a few. All free!
How do these big supermarkets manage to give away food every week?
Aisle after aisle is filled with seemingly endless varieties of food products,
mostly made from simple raw materials: corn, wheat, soybeans or potatoes, for
example - flavored, sweetened and then puffed up with air to make chips,
crackers or cereal, or diluted with water to make soda, beer or infant formula.
There's lots of meat and dairy products. Fruits, vegetables and packaged foods
are flown and trucked in from all over the world.
They offer lots of breads with fancy names and different shapes, but they all
taste about the same because of the dough conditioners that are necessary to
produce the staff of life in such enormous quantities.
Despite a reputation for having a low profit margin, the supermarket business
has attracted some of the wealthiest and shrewdest investors on Wall Street.
Supermarket chains are expanding aggressively and giving away free food. What's
going on here?
Supermarkets, like fast food restaurants, are uniquely situated to take maximum
advantage of many agricultural, energy and regulatory subsidies that we provide
with our taxes. Since we subsidize fossil fuels and nuclear energy at the rate
of $ 1,000 to $ 2,000 per person, per year, it's not surprising that
supermarkets use lots of energy. The several acres they cover are artificially
lit even on sunny days and are maintained at a comfortable temperature
year-round, despite a wide variety of ovens, coolers and freezers, many of which
have no doors and run constantly. Supermarkets are successful only if the acres
of asphalt which surround them are filled with cars coming and going.
The farther an item travels and the more it is processed and packaged, the more
it benefits from energy subsidies. For example, it takes 36 Calories of fossil
fuel just to move one Calorie of lettuce, even organic lettuce, across the
country by truck. Imagine what it takes to fly strawberries from California,
or raspberries from Chile. And, after subsidizing the energy to make all those
plastic bags, bottles and aluminum cans, we then have to pay to dispose of or
Of course there is also a food component to the supermarket's business. There,
too, we've paid a big part of the cost. Excess production of many food
commodities has driven the price below the cost of production. The food
processor, grain trader, or animal feedlot owner pays the farmer $ 2.50 for a
bushel of grain and the taxpayers pay another dollar to the farmer to cover his
or her production costs. That makes corn flakes, corn-sweetened soda and
corn-fed meat more profitable for their producers and cheaper for the retailers.
Since it takes 16 pounds of grain to make a single pound of steak, and lots of
energy to grow the grain and move the cow and meat around, there's lots of
subsidy in each cow. No wonder they can give some steak away.
But, that food isn't really free of course. It took hard work, many
non-renewable resources, and our tax dollars to produce it. It has little value
in our society because the true costs, economic, environmental and social, are
hidden behind the cornucopia of plenty. And then supermarkets even take a huge
advertising tax deduction for giving the food away. What a system!
Now it's said that Connecticut farmers should band together to produce the large
quantities of low-cost food that supermarkets need, and the Connecticut
legislature is being asked to provide a subsidy to help chain supermarkets
locate in the cities where there are none now. Then the poor people, without
cars and with shrinking food and welfare assistance in urban areas, can take
advantage of that free food, too.
But I suspect that in the long run, supermarkets as a way of feeding people have
too many hidden costs to be sustainable for the whole population.
Other ways of providing food to those in need would empower the community and
benefit the local economy. Neighborhood markets, farmers markets, food coops,
green grocers, local bakeries, as well as community, school and home gardens
will likely produce a less costly and more sustainable food system.
Next time you walk into a supermarket, look at it with different eyes.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
C1996, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Solar Farm Education is based on the Old Solar Farm, operated for about half of
this century by Joe and Josephine Solar. Suzanne and Bill Duesing are working
to increase the direct use of solar energy and the number of farms and gardens.
Solar Farm Education works to increase local sufficiency and organic agriculture
through a variety of projects including lectures, writings, a long-running
school garden program in Bridgeport, an educational farm in New Haven and work
with the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) and the New Haven Ecology
Since 1990, Bill and Suzanne have produced a weekly radio essay/commentary for
broadcast on WSHU, 91.1 FM , public radio from Fairfield, Connecticut. Living on
the Earth airs every Friday morning at 6:53. New essays are posted weekly at
A collection of over 90 of Bill's essays, Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays
for a Sustainable and Joyful Future, published by LongRiver Books in 1993 is
available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14 postpaid for
the first copy. $12 each thereafter. Quantity discounts available.