Supermarket Saga

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Not my Acme, but close enough. This is a store in Stamford, CT (Creative Commons).

I remember the first time I lost my dad at the local Acme supermarket, my six-year old panic as I shuffled along the scuffed floors, eyes darting each aisle for his big black parka.  Finally, I spotted the bear of his familiar figure, paused in front of rows upon rows of red and white Campbell cans. I reached for his hand, relieved.

The stranger turned, confused, his blue eyes looking down into my red-faced shame.

At six years old, it was just about the most horrifying thing I could imagine.

***

Inside the Acme, sat a tall green CoinStar machine. One late August, my grandpa and I lugged a plastic jar of change to the store, the shiny new pennies, almost pink, winking in the sun alongside some rusted dimes, nearly black with grime. We had been saving change all summer – a couple nickels leftover from lunch here, a Tooth Fairy quarter there. I watched my grandpa hoist the jar above his waist, the coins jangling, then crashing, into the machine’s plastic funnel. Minutes passed, until a receipt inched out, “THANK YOU FOR USING COINSTAR”, with the disappointing total.

***

 

This Acme of my childhood closed in 2009, after nearly four decades of serving my hometown, Princeton Junction. The building sat empty for five years. Locals rallied around the idea of a Trader Joe’s, an affordable high-end grocer; we got half that demand when Mrs. Green’s, an all-organic supermarket, signed the lease.

I remember walking down the aisles when it first opened in 2014, stunned by the transformation. The white floors reflecting bright, sanitized florescence had been replaced by subdued lighting and vibes of industrial chic, reminiscent of Whole Foods. There was a nutritionist on-site, Australian yogurt costing $2.75 per cup and bakery cases made of wood and glass, not plastic. Instead of Seattle’s Best, I spotted a smoothie bar, in front of the store’s third(!) entrance.

The demographics of West Windsor township have shifted in the last decade to be wealthier and less white. But Princeton Junction, the township’s corner enclave hugging Route 1, with the prices of its aging, smaller homes stabilized by the proximity to New York commuter trains, maybe not so much.

Though we lived less than a mile away, the prices kept our wallets distant, unlike the old Acme we frequented at least once a week. For occasional weeknight trips, Mrs. Green’s was begrudgingly convenient. But the bulk of our groceries came from the Trader Joe’s in Princeton, sometimes the McCaffrey’s on 571.

On paper, West Windsor township seems like a smart location, with the “right incomes” to support a boutique grocer. But in Princeton Junction, we still have a Dunkin’ Donuts, instead of a Starbucks. There is a 7-11 at the corner gas station. Two greasy and delicious pizza joints operate within a quarter-mile of each other. One of them sits in that same Acme strip mall known officially as “Windsor Plaza”; Aljon’s pizza and sub shop has outlasted a number of higher-end tenants in the past decade — including a frozen yogurt shop, a fast-casual burger joint, and eventually, Mrs. Green’s.

After the first several months of promising customer sales, driven more by curiosity than anything else I think, business at Mrs. Green’s began to slow. A national chain reported under financial pressure, many of its locations struggled to keep shelves stocked. Slowly, the Princeton Junction location’s produce, deli and prepared foods section began to downsize. The store eventually scaled to just half its original layout, with a single entrance remaining. “Under renovation”, claimed the sign posted in front of the empty space. It stayed “under renovation” until Mrs. Green’s shuttered in October 2016, just two and a half years after it first opened.

Now Woori Mart is here. The store is a Korean grocer (“Woori” means “Our” in Korean), and it sits adjacent to the town’s once-contentious Asian-themed pocket park. There is another large-ish Asian grocer nearby in Plainsboro, owned by a Chinese company.

Which clientele Woori Mart intends to serve is unclear. They have locations scattered throughout the east coast, in random towns like Northvale, NJ and Buffalo, NY.

Will white people shop there? Does it matter, if it’s a response to Princeton Junction’s changing demographic? Are there really that many Koreans in my town, now? I remember being only one of three in my elementary school! What are the prices like? Who shops there now? Is it cleaner than the Asian food market, which Yelpers have docked with less-than-stellar hygiene reviews? Will it give Koreans a bad rep if it is dirty?

Time to see for myself.

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Meat Factories Still Mistreat Workers

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Workers pack turkeys at a poultry plant in 1956. Though the demographics of the assembly line have changed, the job remains difficult, dangerous and uncomfortably hostile. (Image credit: Creative Commons/USDA)

Turns out Upton Sinclair only told half the story. Meatpacking remains more dangerous than most jobs in America, but physical injuries – carpal tunnel syndrome and amputations – aren’t the only risks, according to a recent government investigation.

At slaughterhouses in at least five states, workplace culture on the assembly line appears so hostile that employees fear asking for bathroom breaks. Those brave enough to speak up often find their requests delayed or denied. During pre-scheduled breaks, long lines also limit bathroom access.

Though labor inspectors upped their visits to meat factories by 27 percent last year since 2005, fear of employer retaliation has kept workers quiet (and uncomfortable), the report found.

UC San Diego professor Vanesa Ribas described similar conditions in her 2015 ethnography, “On The Line”, based on a 16-month stint packing meat in North Carolina. From her book:

“How does one put into words the rage that workers feel when supervisors threaten to replace them with workers who will not go to the bathroom in the course of a fourteen-hour day of hard labor, even if it means wetting themselves on the line?”

Ribas worked alongside mostly Latino or black employees. According to 2010 census estimates, roughly a third of America’s meatpackers are foreign-born; the actual numbers are likely higher, given undocumented workers are excluded from the official census.

The report also discovered a loophole in federal oversight that exposes workers to new chemicals, before they’ve been reviewed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture briefs its inspectors on how to protect themselves from these potential hazards. But the USDA isn’t required to share this information with regulators in charge of workplace safety or operators at inspected plants.

All this follows a 2016 finding that injuries are likely under-reported in slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants. As for illness rates, the latest federal statistics show the sector at nearly 10 times the average among all private industries.

Net Neutrality is Popular — the FCC Doesn’t Care. Should They?

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From Creative Commons/Flicker

American public opinion on a free and open internet — banning service providers from changing the speed of your connection or charging more for certain web content — is one of the few things left bipartisan and undivided: “Yes” to net neutrality, 77 percent said in a poll conducted last summer.

Yet, the FCC has tried and tried to repeal net neutrality, once in 2010 and again in 2014. Both efforts failed, in part due to digital political organizing. The one in 2014 drew a plea from TV host John Oliver asking people to complain on the FCC website. It crashed.

So earlier this year, when FCC chairman Ajit Pai revealed his plan to repeal net neutrality, the FCC faced predictable backlash. In response to his proposal, the agency’s website received a slew of 22 million public comments.

Those with fervent opinions on net neutrality likely being who they are, it’s expected that some comments were auto-generated from bots and algorithms; an FCC spokesperson admitted to ArsTechnica that the agency knew at least 7.5 million of these comments were fraudulent — identical comments submitted using thousands of stolen personal identifiers like names and addresses. The fake submissions appeared on both sides of the debate, with half a million filed from Russian email addresses. A recent Pew analysis found the majority of comments came from temporary or duplicate emails while at least 38 percent were unoriginal.

But in assembling the docket for the commission vote on December 14, what did Pai’s staff do with this mixed bag of public comments — some legitimate, others clearly forged?

They lumped them in, failing to filter out even the handful that were egregiously false. Time constraints, budget constraints — these are common excuses for the bureaucrat’s lack of quality control. But according to an FCC spokesperson in an ArsTechnica interview, neither was the case: “The message from this FCC official seemed to be that a huge percentage of the comments can be safely ignored … Allowing the docket to be filled with junk made it easier for Pai’s office to argue that the comments should not be seen as a legitimate expression of public opinion.”

The FCC, as an independent federal agency, isn’t legally tied to public opinion. The millions of online comments, even those that were legitimate, had no sway on Pai’s final proposal. In any case, if FCC commissioners planned to weigh consumer interests, the inclusion of fraudulent comments will likely undermine their confidence in this channel of public opinion.

This is what startles me most about Pai’s case for net neutrality. It’s a blatant attempt to trash and silence the consumer’s voice on the internet, and it rings apocalyptic for the future of democracy. Though the effects of net neutrality’s repeal are serious, some experts concede it’s naïve to suggest that backdoor processes aren’t already in play to steer web traffic. But when more and more political action is happening online, what happens when complaints filed on government sites lose their credibility?

The disparaging of online processes for collecting public comment will have broader implications outside of net neutrality’s repeal. There is at least one public agency that relies on web-sourced feedback to help protect consumers: the Consumer Financial Protections Bureau. The CFPB tracks financial abuses reported online and its complaints database is publicly available.

To be fair, the FCC has a different mission than the CFPB. According to the FCC’s website, the agency’s top strategic goal is “promoting economic growth” and its mission statement does not include consumers at all.

But as the internet changes how we communicate and exercise our First Amendment rights, I wonder whether the FCC’s mission should include a consumer protections clause. Or if the Federal Trade Commission should oversee its decisions to protect consumers in the communications market.

Regardless of net neutrality’s upcoming sentence, Pai’s attempt to undermine citizens’ voices online is unacceptable. No public servant, serving an independent agency or not, should operate in that realm — obstructing democracy in the 21st century. Which means online, too.

 

Do Miss New York

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View from California’s central coast in Santa Barbara. It’s beautiful and warm, and perhaps I’m ungrateful.

I want to say I’m lonely, but I don’t think so. I’ve waited weeks to settle down, to finally put down roots, and now that it’s time, I’ve somehow grown stupidly afraid.

I do miss New York. And how the city reeks — steaming up from subway grates, sewers home to pizza rats, that homeless man, the suited one — all these dirty lives fermenting into fiction.

Out here, there is just ocean. And sunshine.

I went back east in October and wrote this little diddy on the train, heading from Boston to New York, So nostalgic, I wrote an ode to suburban wasteland:

Tracks running parallel to miles of salty marsh — pockets of blue glass carving soft edges through cattails.

Fields of creamy tops, like beer suds dolloped on golden stalks.

The morning sun, its amber cast — the coat of autumn chill. The leaves begin to turn.

Clusters of two-story homes dot the waterfront. White trimmed, four-bedroom. A dull red bike leaning on porch rails.

I spy a peeling gray barn. Eagle nests perched on low wooden posts. Some vacant parking lots. A greenhouse.

We speed by quintessential strip malls, jutting out like piers from lakes of pavement. Nearby, wide suburban streets flow empty, their quiet Sunday morning lull.

This slow, deliberate, pace. A deep longing. Some pangs.

Is this what it feels like to be homesick?

Here’s another:

In the east, the wet earth soaks up the sun, trapping heat between moss and peat, between thick ivy vines and bright green canopy.

Southern California, faced with the sun’s abundance, instead loses all of the light’s substance. A sunset breeze flits across the city, sweeping the day’s heat back into the night sky. Cacti don’t shiver like cattails do.

Drought conditions mean thick, waxy leaves. Things grow dry and crackly and tough. Palm trees shoot up, a slight lean in some haphazard direction. I tiptoe underneath.

Big Beer Mondays at Mister Up’s

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Taken the day after Independence Day. This is not Mister Up’s, but an old-school diner in the hills of New Jersey. I ordered a coke and a slice of cold apple pie. I think I was reading “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen — not entirely sure. The service was fantastic. The waitress reminded me of Rachel. 

On Monday nights, five dollars can get you 25 oz. of any Vermont brew at Mister Up’s, a local restaurant and pub in Middlebury. There are about a dozen local beer selections, from dark and creamy pours like Otter Creek’s Oatmeal Stout to Burlington’s Queen City Hefenweizer, a light, citrusy ale that tickles the lips.

Ordering one “big beer” is a given. Ordering two isn’t unheard of. Ordering three… well, good luck.

By 9:30 P.M., the booths are packed in both dining rooms, with locals and college students alike. This is nothing like the Thursday bar night at Two Brother’s Tavern, where sweaty collared shirts and silky tops dominate the downstairs lounge.

At Mister Up’s, there’s no loud music, no dancing, no strobe lights. No one appears hammered. People often keep their scarves on – the cozy charm of questionable heating. Sometimes, there are board games. Often, it’s just cards.

The bar stools are taken, minus the occasional lone seat between parties of two and three. Rachel, the bartender, frantically fills oversized mugs with beer, sometimes clamping down on two taps at a time, serving up one after another. I marvel at her speed, her coordination. She hands me a “big beer.” I clutch it with two hands; it’s always heavier than it looks. I glance at her forearms in awe.

Rachel is the gem of the joint. Though tucked away on Bakery Lane, there’s no baker in sight. And besides the occasional burger or taco assembly, the chef doesn’t seem to do much besides stick frozen food in the oven. Sometimes, the fryer. Don’t be fooled by the exotic adjectives on the menu, like “Cajun” in front of the word “salad” or “sandwich”; it’s all standard American fare. You might as well have brought your own seasoning to sprinkle on yourself. It’d be less salty. You might actually taste the spice.

Hungry students usually order “fingers and toes”, a benign plate of chicken fingers and fries. It’s a college favorite, only because the rest of the menu is a crapshoot. Even 0rdering nachos can be risky. Will all the cheese be melted? Will half the chips be burnt?

The cookie skillet “a la mode” is admittedly delicious, but it’s a dish that’s hard to screw up. Think vanilla ice cream melting into the warm, molten nooks of a chocolate chip cookie, sizzling with crisp buttery edges that hide a soft, doughy inside. For sober pals and underage buddies, this dessert is a nice alternative to the classic “big beer.” It’s also reasonably priced at $6 per skillet that’s big enough to share.

And if you order a beer, make sure to tip Rachel.

Film Review: “Everything Is Copy”

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From Creative Commons/Flickr

Nora Ephron. For most college students, the name rings like a faint hourly bell, dull and distant, just frequent enough to take notice. The screenwriter behind “When Harry Met Sally”? The author of Heartburn? Yes, and yes. The feared and revered literary icon, the unabashedly honest feminist, the self-proclaimed “relationship expert”? I had no idea.

The documentary opens with Nora Ephron reading an essay on an important family mantra, one recited by generations of Ephron women. A running ribbon throughout her wildly public life and puzzlingly private death, it’s also the title of this film: “Everything Is Copy.”

Using Nora’s life as “copy” for the script, Director Noah Bernstein take a page from her family book. It’s fitting. He’s her son.

We hear Bernstein’s voice in the narration; we see him on the screen. A journalist by training, he initially admits his discomfort with putting himself in the story.

Maybe he shouldn’t have admitted it so early on, right after the opening credits, because the early interview scenes, him sitting across the couch from Delia Ephron, appear forced and awkward. It’s as if his admitted uneasiness of putting himself in the film is contagious. Every time I heard him ask a question, I squirmed. Every time he appeared on screen, I cringed. When the camera finally cut from the couch to Delia’s face, I sighed in relief.

But maybe that was the point. This film isn’t just about Nora Ephron as the writer, sister, friend and wife, but about a son coming to terms with his mother’s sudden death. Ephron suffered from a blood disorder that she kept secret from him (and most of the world) for many years, before succumbing to leukemia in 2008.

This 90-minute reel unspools like a scrapbook of Nora’s life: her sisters and close friends provide voice-overs for old photographs, modern female icons like Lena Dunham read funny, biting snippets from her early essays, an interview with ex-husband, THE Carl Bernstein, reveals his take on their marriage as tabloid shots of their tumultuous divorce flicker on screen.

The film embeds short television clips from Nora’s interviews throughout the years. Though the older segments are sometimes grainy, the zing of her witty one-liners and abrasive, yet hilarious views remain fresh.

Like many 20-something women, I saw and loved “When Harry Met Sally.” Unlike most romantic comedies, the heroine is ambitious and confident, flawed but effortlessly funny.

After watching “Everything Is Copy,” it all makes sense. She wrote incredible screenplays because she was an incredible woman. This tribute to Nora Ephron is not just for writers and it’s not just for feminists. As a young millennial trying to make my own mark, I take strong note of Ephron’s character and drive.

Let’s Ban Poor People From [Everything]

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From Creative Commons/Flickr. This piece is on soda purchases with food stamps. And what else is soda but fizzy sugar water? Not saying I don’t drink it, just how else would you describe it?

Should we ban poor people from buying soda? A recent article in the New York Times reported that families who receive food stamps buy more sugary drinks than families who don’t, according to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though the U.S.D.A. repeated that the results don’t reveal a dramatic difference between the shopping carts of Americans, rich or poor, some public health experts remain skeptical. They want to ban food stamps from being used to buy soda.

However, there are limits in the U.S.D.A. study and its 2011 data collection. It failed to consider geographical differences between American spending and eating habits. It also assumed low-income families in urban neighborhoods spent most of their food stamps in grocery stores, rather than the corner store or bodega down the street.

Even if it’s true that poor people drink more sugary drinks, this habit won’t be broken with a ban on buying soda using Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or federal food stamps. If anything, the proposed policy, and all the lobbying against it, is a distraction from the real problem: our government’s cozy relationship with agribusiness.

First, the study published by the Department of Agriculture was limited in scope. The data came from a single anonymous grocery chain in the United States. Since grocery chains are regional, were they Safeways in California or Winn Dixies in the South? What about Hannafords in New England?

The Washington Post reported that the public health of Americans, and their daily eating, drinking and smoking habits, varies from region to region. For example, New Englanders are healthier overall, but more likely to smoke and drink than Southerners. Relying on data from one regional grocery chain, it might be a leap to make assumptions on what all SNAP families scan at the register.

Convenience stores, local bodegas and bulk warehouses were not included in the analysis. Low-income families are more likely to live in food deserts where there is no nearby grocery store. The local shops not included in this analysis might be more expensive, but it would likely be more convenient.

On the other hand, bulk stores sell cheaper groceries in bigger packages. It’s possible that low-income households spent more of their food stamps, here.

Regardless, let’s say more studies are done and new evidence comes out that SNAP households are spending more on sugary beverages than non-SNAP families. The government is subsidizing soda purchases.

It’s clear our government has a direct stake in public health, from providing health insurance through the Affordable Care Act to footing the bill for emergency care. It’s how politicians justify a “sin” tax on alcohol and smoking bans in restaurants. It’s why some states refuse to legalize marijuana and why others allow for its medical use.

Offering free healthcare while subsidizing harmful habits doesn’t make sense. Private companies that churn out snack cakes and soft drinks essentially cash checks from Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, American taxpayers bear the lifetime cost of chronic disease, like Type II diabetes.

There’s no doubt some good intentions behind preventing food stamps from paying for junk food. It’s an attempt to break the chain between poverty and poor health. It’s just misdirected.

In the debate over soda and food stamps, an estimated $357 million or the yearly amount spent on soda by SNAP recipients, is at stake. Yet, there’s a bigger subsidy, one nearly ten-fold in size, that no one on Capitol Hill wants to wrestle with.

The number one ingredient in soda is high fructose corn syrup, a clear, gooey sweetener derived from field corn. In 2014, our government spent $2.3 billion subsidizing corn. Why are politicians so hell-bent on regulating individual habits, yet blind to regulating the corporate subsidies that encourage unhealthy consumption?

Soda is engineered to be addictive; one sip releases a slew of feel-good chemicals that prevent satiety and triggers cravings. Regular soda drinkers are likely swayed by these effects when paused in the aisle lined with liters of Coca-Cola. Limiting food stamp purchases would crack down on addicted citizens, but leave the “drug lords” untouched.

For food companies that profit from America’s sugar addiction, a SNAP ban on soda wouldn’t put a dent in the billions of dollars in corn subsidies they receive each year. Lobbyists bat around ethics with the public, inciting rallies over the soda ban on the table. For lobby groups, it must feel like a light-hearted scrimmage. Their biggest subsidy isn’t on the mound, but hidden safely in the bullpen.