The illusion of choice in the grocery store: Grocery stores and the construction of food choice Public Deposited

Alternative food systems make consumers think about food as more than a commodity, as a social relation. Many of these systems, such as local, organic, non-GMO, farmers’ markets, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), are positioned as supplements to the conscious consumer’s diet rather than the one-stop shop to purchase all of their food. These alternatives to traditional food attempt to achieve social change from the periphery, rather than at the core, leaving them with limited ability to impact systemic social change. The core of food systems, on the contrary, has access to millions of consumers and the potential to create systemic change. This core is the market between food producers and food consumers: the grocery store. This research addresses grocery store marketing regulations, standards, and practices because I wanted to learn what role grocery stores have in constructing consumer food choices so that grocery stores can be held responsible and seen as an intervention point for the increasing rates of diet-related public health issues in low-income populations. This thesis finds that there is a lack of public regulations and the dominance of private industry standards and practices that govern grocery industry marketing of processed, shelf-stable foods over whole, fresh foods. Understanding standards and practices of food retailers reveals how neoliberal discourse in our economic, social, and political systems has failed public institutions and the private industry, leading to the lack of free-market competition and consumers’ personal choice and creating health disparities between high- and low-income Americans. These social problems created by food retailers demonstrate how individual choice is constrained by income, purchasing power, and the illusion that the decisions we make in the grocery store are meaningful and our own. By uncovering the systemic construction of food choice, we can better challenge grocery retailers to identify socially responsible areas for change and pathways forward.

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