Farm to Table: The Supermarket Industry and American Society, 1920-1990

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Davison, Benjamin, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Zunz, Olivier, Department of History, University of Virginia

This dissertation, “Farm to Table: The Supermarket Industry and American Society, 1920- 1990,” argues that grocers shaped the production and consumption of food in the United States during the twentieth century. Beginning with the first supermarkets, built in 1920s Los Angeles, I show how grocers built an integrated system for the mass-distribution of farm products by intervening in every aspect of the food system. Retailers financed the scientists who created new breeds of plants and animals suited to industrial marketing just as they also funded the development of new kinds of processing technologies, eventually exporting this tightly linked system of food production abroad. Grocers also catalyzed racial, gendered, and classist ideas about eating and shopping that influenced where companies built stores, which products they marketed towards different populations, and even how federal, state, and local authorities regulated grocers and processors. Consumers, particularly suburban white women, joined supermarket operators in providing the demand to intensify the industrialization of agriculture while constructing popular eating norms, ensuring endless supplies of foodstuffs for growing cities and suburbs as well as emergence of “food deserts” depriving the poor and minorities access to quality, fresh foods. Those same demands fueled the growth of large processing plants and factory farms across the United States that thrust poor locals and immigrants, primarily from Latin America, into onerous minimum-wage jobs, disrupting economic and social life in the nation’s small towns, particularly those in the West. My project also follows the supermarket abroad, showing how supermarkets brought the American diet to consumers across the globe.

By focusing on the supermarket industry, my scholarship offers a new perspective on American society in three key ways. First, I add to the growing literature concerned with the growth of American capitalism by showing how one of the key institutions of consumption –the supermarket– molded the public’s material desires, determined which social groups had access to supplies of quality food, and guided scientists’ research agendas. Secondly, my study directly intervenes in debates on American political development by placing the supermarket industry at the forefront of the businesses responsible for determining the broad goals of economic development and urban planning. Finally, I offer new perspective to the ongoing global conversation on fast-food culture and the dilemmas of industrial and organic agriculture.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Supermarkets, Food, United States, Cultural history, Business history
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