Supermarkets reveal the inequities of the modern food-production system.
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The Great American Supermarket Lie

Instead of highlighting the glories of capitalism, supermarkets expose the inequalities it creates.
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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.
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