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Sam Mogannam, second-generation owner of Bi-Rite Market and co-author of Eat Good Food, discusses the role small grocers can play in supporting the local economy, educating eaters, and sharing good, sustainable food.
What is good food?

Sam Mogannam: Good food first and foremost has to taste good. Food often tastes better when it’s in season, so seasonality is among the criteria for good food. Also, the less distance food has to travel, the fresher it is, so local is important. Local food also helps support local economies and helps preserve farmland and food culture.

I also consider fresh food to be better than processed foods. Good food should make us feel good, not make us sick. Two-thirds of our adult population is obese, and that is currently costing us over $125 billion annually. Most of that expense could be prevented through a better diet. We need to take back control of our food system, and we need to educate people, so we can reverse this trend. We need to spend more time at home cooking, teaching our kids how to cook, and sitting at a table together and sharing a meal.

What questions should we be asking of people who make and sell food?

Sam Mogannam: Three simple questions can get you to the root of whether food is good or not:

  1. Where was it grown? It is amazing how little or generic the information available to us is. The USDA requires Country of Origin Labeling, so “USA” is all a sign needs to state (the WTO is currently trying to lobby the USDA to repeal this law, so no labeling would be required). The more precise the info, the more transparency there is about where the food came from.
  2. How was it grown? Ask your grocer about chemical or synthetic inputs such as pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, and antibiotics. If their answer is “I don’t know,” don’t buy it.
  3. Who grew it? Does the retailer know what farm or ranch it came from? This is less critical if you can get good answers to the first two questions, but your retailer’s answer will tell you something about their desire to know.
How can grocers play a part in educating eaters about good food?

Sam Mogannam: Education is a critical part of daily life at Bi-Rite Market. I know from our experience that by conducting staff tastings and professional development, creating informative signage, encouraging conversations with guests, and always sampling, experimenting with, and introducing new foods, grocers can affect change in their community.

How can neighborhood grocery stores help create community around food?

Sam Mogannam: Grocery stores are anchors. Supermarkets are generally the first tenant secured in shopping centers because other businesses rely on the foot traffic they generate. When we took over Bi-Rite in 1997, there were about 40 jobs on our block. Now there are over 400. We also support over 500 vendors and countless nonprofits and schools in our community.

I love how close our staff gets to our guests. We have conversations and share stories. We share food with them all day long. If this isn’t creating community in a meaningful way, I don’t know what is.

What role do grocery stores play in creating a more sustainable, equitable food system?

Sam Mogannam: Grocers need to play a more active role in educating consumers, not enticing them to buy more than they need. Fresh foods need to take center stage, and we need to provide consumers with the information to prepare a decent meal. Grocers should look at food as a means of feeding a population, not just as some product they buy, mark up, and sell for a profit.

I believe that the role of a grocer is to be a good feeder. As a grocer, you need to be conscious of the food you are selling to your community. You can stock more and better quality fresh food from small local producers. That way, instead of our current system in which major chains compete over the price of the same mass-produced products, we could create a new system in which each market has a product line that represents its location. As a result, the prices would reflect the true cost of food, and the supply of food would correlate with the demand of a particular market.

What does the food movement mean to you?

Sam Mogannam: The food movement is about taking back control of where our food comes from and celebrating the power to feed ourselves and our community good food. A handful of companies are responsible for most of the food we eat. It should not be this way. We should control the food we eat. Over 300 farmers are leaving their land every week because they aren’t making ends meet. Our environment is screwed up, and industrial food production is a major cause. We are too distant to understand where our food comes from, how it is grown, and how to cook it.

Food is a basic human need. In order to function and thrive, we need to eat well and feed each other well. We can’t do it unless we recognize and understand what good food is.

About Sam Mogannam

Sam Mogannam is the second-generation owner of Bi-Rite Market, San Francisco’s neighborhood grocery store specializing in sustainable and locally produced products. After working in the restaurant industry for a number of years, Sam decided to return to his family’s business, reopening Bi-Rite in the space his father and uncle had operated since 1964. He is also the founder of 18 Reasons, a nonprofit event and education space. He is the co-author of Bi-Rite Market’s Eat Good Food: A Grocer’s Guide to Shopping, Cooking & Creating Community Through Food.

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