This guest post is published around the Joint Annual Meeting of the Agriculture, Food, and Human Values Society and the Association for the Study of Food and Society in Madison, WI, occurring June 13-16, 2018. #foodstudies18

By Andrew Warnes, author of How the Shopping Cart Explains Global Consumerism

It’s fair to say that my new project, How the Shopping Cart Explains Global Consumerism, is a lot more personal than any of my previous books. When it came out in 2008, Savage Barbecue led me to meet quite a few BBQ connoisseurs, both here and in the United States, and on a few occasions I found myself explaining that I’ve never actually been to many barbecues. Those I have attended have generally been of a more British variety, and less likely to involve ribs or pulled pork than burgers, sausages, warm lager, rain.

By way of contrast, though, I’m all too familiar with the supermarket carts. Like many of us, I do try to shop independently. Our old Victorian market here in Leeds is vast, the largest of its kind in Europe, and I often call in on my way to the bus station to buy fresh cilantro or garlic and ginger by the pound. I will travel a long way for a proper granary loaf from a traditional baker. But as most of these family firms struggle to stay in business, the distances I need to travel to complete such culinary quests are getting longer all the time, and I find myself pushing a supermarket cart around more often than I would like.

Research I undertook for the new project has confirmed that in my mounting reliance on the supermarket I am not alone but only following a wider consumerist pattern. It might be true that the average supermarket cart is now shrinking on either side of the Atlantic, and that shallow and double-decker designs will soon outnumber the deep steel cages of old. But this only reflects the fact that, even in the age of the internet dark store, customers are now visiting supermarkets far more often, with many now treating them as “walk-in fridges” on an almost daily basis.[1] As such, while my book includes a history of the cart’s original development in 1940s Oklahoma and elsewhere, it also considers a more recent transformation that my own experience reflects. Commandeering entire regions for agroindustrial production, channelling its products through complex networks of global distribution, the supermarket’s system of food production has become, if anything, even more dominant since the year 2000. Our society’s dependency on the cart might continue to perturb us—and our culture might continue connect this simple machine with images of obesity or suburban drudgery or defeat. But researching the life and times of the cart has also taught that we cannot ignore it, or build a less destructive system of food production unless we also engage with and reform the supermarket system itself.

[1] Rebecca Smithers, “Why Brtain is Ditching the Weekly Shop” in The Guardian. 1 November 2017.