Supermarkets offer great variety, but they also reveal the inequities of the modern food-production system. (iStock)
Shane Hamilton is a lecturer in international business strategy at the University of York. His book "Supermarket USA: Food and Power in the Cold War Farms Race" will be published by in September 2018.

A meme has recently been circulating on social media, suggesting that supermarkets are the embodiment of American capitalism, concrete proof of the superiority of free enterprise over socialism. “I will never understand,” declares the meme, produced by right-wing activist organization Turning Point USA, “how a socialist can walk into a grocery store and think, ‘Man I hate capitalism!’ ”

The meme is new, but the idea that American-style supermarkets can be “weapons” against socialism is dated. During the Cold War, American propagandists imagined supermarkets as ideological armaments: Abundant, affordable food stacked high on supermarket shelves was meant to illustrate the advantages of the American way of life, proclaiming that only democratic capitalism could provide for the basic needs of ordinary citizens. The notion made for effective anti-communist propaganda 60 years ago, as the American food system outperformed socialist food provisioning at the national level. But the American supermarket was built upon foundations of significant power disparities for both farmers and consumers, inequalities that in our contemporary food system threaten to undermine the merits of capitalism today.

Cold War propagandists often turned to the American supermarket to celebrate the advantages of capitalism. One 1955 film aimed at high school students portrayed a British socialist wandering through the aisles, amazed at how ordinary American citizens could afford to stuff their shopping carts full of prepackaged produce. The result: The Brit instantly disavowed his left-wing politics. Such films were part of the U.S. effort to win the Cold War through economic and ideological warfare.

In 1957, the U.S. Department of Commerce worked with a supermarket trade group to build “Supermarket USA,” a fully functioning 10,000-square-foot grocery store airlifted onto communist soil in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. Millions of socialist citizens were invited to gape in awe at towering stacks of sugary breakfast cereals and frozen foods. Every hundredth visitor was given a free bag of groceries. American propagandists expected ordinary citizens and communist leaders, including Marshal Tito, to be visibly stunned by the power of American free enterprise to deliver abundance — no minor claim, given Yugoslavia’s repeated experience of famine during and immediately after World War II.

“I can think of no better way in penetrating the Iron Curtain with our philosophy of life than the supermarket,” Max Mandell Zimmerman, founder of the Super Market Institute, informed Congress at a 1957 hearing. Militant rhetoric of the power of America’s food system to undermine communism was so pervasive that at the 1962 International Food Congress Expo, exhibitors erected a four-foot diameter “Living Salad Bowl” and a “tree of sausages” to “provide the Free World a potent weapon of contrast” with the hunger, shortages and long food-shopping queues experienced by citizens of communist Europe and Asia.

Although such claims seem absurd today, from the late 1940s into the 1970s such rhetoric provided justification for the internationalization of American food systems, particularly the increasing power of U.S.-based multinational agribusinesses, as they spread throughout Latin America, Europe and Asia.

Even in its own time, much of the Cold War rhetoric was laughable — and that was before adding the tree of sausages in. Yet as Slavenka Drakulić recounted in her 1991 memoir of growing up in communist Yugoslavia, her first visit to an American supermarket was, in fact, stunning. It was not the mere sight of fresh strawberries in midwinter that mattered. It was the entire American food system, from farm to fork, that impressed Drakulić, not the spectacular displays so prized by propagandists.

In other words, a socialist citizen would never have walked into an American supermarket — whether in 1957 Zagreb or 1991 Manhattan — and declared, “Man, I hate capitalism!” Rather they likely would have expressed a sense of admiration for the abundance enabled by America’s industrial agriculture and modern food-distribution systems. Soviet Deputy Premier Anastas I. Mikoyan spent $9.29 at a Giant Food supermarket in Maryland in 1959 and admitted, “We don’t have stores like this in Russia.”

Though the comment was not intended as an indictment of state socialism, in later years it would seem prescient, as Soviet leaders repeatedly failed to deliver on the promise that collective farms could provide affordable, abundant food through state-owned shops. When Soviet factory workers declared “Use Khrushchev for sausage meat!” in a 1962 protest over rising food costs, they were directly challenging the economic legitimacy of communist rule.

And so, supermarkets were effective weapons in the Cold War not because they made for effective propaganda but also because they provided abundant food when the Soviet state could not.

Yet the United States’ food abundance came with costs. Supermarkets were the endpoint of an industrial agriculture supply chain that, over the course of the 20th century, came to rely ever more on monocropping, animal confinement and chemical inputs. Farmers in the United States and abroad lost autonomy as the demands of the supermarket-driven food economy narrowed their choices for how to grow their crops and raise their livestock.

Consumers found an astounding array of affordable choices in supermarket aisles, but the easy availability of highly processed foods promoted obesity while branded packages obscured what was happening on the farms far removed from shoppers’ daily consciousness. U.S.-based multinational agribusinesses, from grain-trading firms to international supermarkets, grew in power during and after the Cold War, using market mechanisms rather than political institutions to govern and regulate food chains. Hyper-competition in the supermarket industry also pushed firms to lower retail worker wages, avoid locating stores in low-income neighborhoods and ignore American agriculture’s reliance on underpaid migrant farm labor.

So while middle-class consumers enjoyed a bounty of cheap and convenient food, small farmers, farmworkers, low-income consumers and supermarket employees suffered to make it all possible. Instead of embodying the supposedly inherent superiority of capitalism, the supermarket demonstrated how it produced winners and losers.

If modern supermarkets are to serve as symbols of the benefits of capitalist enterprise, meme-producing organizations might do well to devote their attention to how supermarket-driven supply chains continue to hurt or constrain the freedoms of farm laborers, smallholder farmers, low-income consumers and supermarket employees. If a socialist walks into a supermarket that fights modern slavery in American farm fields, supports decent incomes for small farmers, offers healthful food in inner cities and respects the human dignity of its employees, then indeed it would be hard to imagine her or him declaring “Man, I hate capitalism!”