Op-Ed: Our Grocers Remain On The Front Lines For Us

“It’s easy for Americans to forget the food they eat doesn’t just magically appear on a supermarket shelf. Someone had to produce it and somebody had to put it there.”

– Christopher Dodd

Next to water, food is the most important necessity in life. Americans have grown so accustomed to obtaining food at the supermarket, few appreciate this vital industry. Yet in colonial America, before the first general stores, families had to hunt, gather and cultivate food, and wait months for canned goods and supplies to arrive from Europe. It took patience and work to mold the sustenance of our society. It was the keystone that plotted the map of how the colonies became the America of today.

The flagship of every town was its general store. The colonists would buy, sell and trade dry goods and foodstuffs there. It was their place to exchange messages and hold town meetings. Merchants worked long hours to sustain life in the colonies. They were banks, post offices and extended credit to those trying to survive. They were the pillars in our colonial townships. These merchants were the umbilical cords that sustained life in the colonies, that helped incubate their American Dreams.

Today’s grocery shopping experience sharply contrasts with that in colonial times. Modern grocery retailing has been unique to America since 1859 with the advent of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company; aka A&P. They were the first to vend dry and canned goods with non-perishables along with butchers and produce vendors that formulated the modern American grocery enterprise.

“My goal was to put everything under one roof for our shoppers.”

– George Gilman, founder, A&P

In our markets today, we have more food and abundant supplies of everything we want, and much we don’t want than any time in history. Three decades ago, our grocery stores carried about 7,000 items. Today, there are more than 50,000 items stocked in the average national supermarket chain store.

M. B. Skaggs, founder of Safeway Markets in 1915, once said, “Groceries are a necessity of life and our goal is to be open 365 days and nights a year to provide them to people who need them.” And they along with other modern grocers have served America since the 1900s. Piggly Wiggly, A&P, Skaggs, and others have grown with the population, while local chains and independents dot urban America’s landscape. They are the major suppliers of foodstuffs that feed our hungry nation.

Like many of life’s short list of things we take for granted, the supermarket ranks high. Yet they are our life-link to the food chain. Their doors are open, rain or shine, day or night, to feed and provide aide to America. They work 24/7 to serve us whenever we need them. While most of us are asleep, our grocers are unloading trucks and stocking shelves until the wee hours of the morning.

“When you work the night crew in a store you know the name of everyone at the donut shop.”

– Alfonzo King

The development of America’s supermarket industry didn’t just change the way we buy groceries, it changed the way we live. Since Worl War II, they’ve become our pharmacies, local banks, fast food delis, hardware and kitchen gadget suppliers, and our emergency medical clinics. We rely upon them for everything from bologna, beans, bandages, burgers, broccoli, beer, bananas and birth control pills. On weekends, holidays, and tragedies, when others shut down, their doors are always open for us.

When governments ordered people to work from home, and businesses to close due to COVID-19, there were a lot of heroes that stepped forward to keep essential services up and running. Many left the safety of their homes to insure we’d keep our support networks running during this tragedy. While those professionals we depend on, such as first responders and healthcare workers rose to the occasion, another group entered the front lines to help others: our local grocery store workers.

With much of America resembling a ghost town, our supermarket parking lots were congested with panic buyers. While baggers were out directing traffic, store managers were inside refereeing fights over who was going to get the last can of corn or roll of toilet paper. It was doomsday on steroids in our stores. While frenzied shoppers scurried to get back to the sanctity of their homes, our grocers put their health and safety on the line 24/7, ordering, stocking, pricing and refereeing to rescue us. One Publix store manager said, “Its so insane, people are grabbing things out of our warehouse.”

As businesses across the U.S. close and people stay at home, the enduring work of mail carriers, delivery drivers and other service workers demonstrate how much we depend on these everyday heroes to keep society’s engine running. And throughout this madness and chaos, a new breed of unsung heroes has stepped out of the wings into the limelight upon our national stage. And that is our local grocer. The one many notice least and expect the most from every day they go shopping.

With white-tablecloth restaurants and walk-in fast food joints closed, and even the generous Las Vegas buffets shut down, almost overnight Americans are forced to reevaluate the most essential part of their daily lives: food. It is painful to forgo routine pleasures such as movies, dining out, bar hopping and other social events, but eating is more than a cultural ritual, it is life’s necessity. That’s why our most often unnoticed, unappreciated grocers are quietly becoming American folk heroes.

“A hero is someone who does what must be done, and needs no other reason.”

– Nancy Holder

Grocery store managers work long hours and take abuse for everything from out of stock warehouses to high prices. Yet they have no control over them. Profits on most food, paper and cleaning items are low, and competition is high. And people are not buying high profit items, like hardware, sundries and house-wares right now. So most of our grocers are just shoveling groceries from the back door into customers’ shopping carts, hoping to break even and make their payroll each week.

All U.S. grocery stores are working overtime to see us through this pandemic, especially those at the highest risk. Since The Centers for Disease Control found those over 60 are most vulnerable, local grocers have modified hours, hired more people, and have priority hours for seniors to shop. Publix, Safeway, Kroger, Albertson’s, Dollar General and others have made special provisions for seniors. Many stores are closing early to clean and restock their shelves to open earlier for them.

During the first and second Great Wars, our grocery stores monitored rationing for the good of our nation and world freedom. And most people played by their rules since they knew this was a fight for world democracy. If an ally fell prey to the axis of evil, like a domino, it would affect their liberty. Since grocery shopping is a shared human experience in modern societies, a trip to the grocery store has become a symbol of liberty and a human right in every free nation in this world.

“During the Berlin Blockade, we witnessed how essential food is to world freedom.”

– General Curtis LeMay

Let’s pray the Lord keeps our grocers healthy.

“We hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others.”

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Center Square – William Haupt III

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