This past summer, I worked in the Produce department of a large supermarket in Portland, Oregon. This work allowed me to peek into the intersection of food production and consumption at the most common point of exchange: in the grocery store. It changed the way I look at food on the shelf, the way I select produce to purchase for myself, and my imaginings of the people working at the store.
Here are some of the lessons I learned about how the Produce department operated (at least at my store, during the summer I worked there).
- Rotate Product.
This is the single most important rule of working in produce. The products we sell are fresh, fragile, and expiring rapidly. When restocking walls or tables, ensure the older product (already out on the floor) is on top or in front, so the customer is more likely to pick up yesterday’s eggplant first. When working salads (the boxed or bagged lettuce mixes), always read the date and stock older salads to the front of more recent deliveries. Organic spinach that expires in less than two days is sold at a steep discount; split tomatoes or desiccated chayote squash have to be thrown out. This is known as ‘shrink,’ which negatively impacts the ‘numbers’ of the produce department and the whole store, which are policed through indirect social pressure as well as in managers’ formal reviews and advancement opportunities.[This all means that customers looking for riper peaches should choose from the very front of top of the display. If you want your salad to last a few more days, reach all the way back and take the very last one.]
- Conventional | Organic is the axis of the department.
The physical space of the Produce department is divided in half, with conventional produce on one side, and organic on the other. The mirrored layout was not always readily navigable by customers, and some of the most common questions I received were “Do you sell organic [item]?” and “Do you sell non-organic [item]?” for virtually every [item] you could imagine. I received both versions of this question nearly equally, often layered with a tone disdain. Customers who were staunchly loyal either to organic or to conventional produce openly judged ‘the other side,’ and with equal amounts of conviction. Organic shoppers were aghast at perceived contamination of conventional produce, while conventional shoppers considered organic produce snooty and wastefully expensive. Meanwhile, in the back room, I watched organic and conventional produce arrive in shipping boxes from the same growers. How different could organic and conventional baby spinach really be, I wondered, if they were both from Taylor Farms?
- Produce is the best department to work in.
I heard this from every single one of my co-workers in Produce, most often backed by the rationale of high wages. With the exception of career butchers, Produce employees earn more than anyone else in the store. Our fresh-product work is remarkably similar to employees working in Bakery or Deli, and the physical requirements of heavy lifting and long standing are expected of virtually every employee, but Produce employees have a different union contract and are paid up to $5.10 more per hour than other employees. I was hired at the Journeyman rate of $17.60 per hour (the highest rate paid to any non-salaried employee, with the exception of career butchers) whereas a friend who started work as a cashier at the same time earned the Portland minimum wage of $12.50 per hour. This discrepancy is not random: Produce is (and has long been) a male-dominated department. Minimum wage departments like Floral, Bakery, and cashier-work are all more likely to have predominantly female teams.
- When in doubt, fill bananas.
On my first day, my manager told me that bananas are the most sold item for the company nationally (after gas, which it seemed didn’t count because it’s not a true retail item), and are a Never Out of Stock item: bananas are palpably the highest priority in the department. Selling out of bananas was simply not an option, and it was understood that the banana rack should always be full. Anyone working a late shift who wanted to keep management off their back knew that “if you keep bananas full, no one will bother you.” When I finished an assigned task, I would always fill bananas before asking for a new job, because I knew it would be the first task my manager would give me anyway. One Saturday shift, the delivery truck was hours late and we were down to our last 3 bunches of bananas. Tension filled the department. When the truck finally arrived, bananas came first off the truck, the pallet jack raced across the store, and the store manager helped unbox and stock the bananas. I marveled at how many people had to organize themselves around getting bananas from the tree to this shelf: the farm laborers, the person filling the boxes, the ship captains and truck drivers, warehouse employees, and even me, all for a customer to buy a banana for almost nothing: 49¢ a pound.