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Niche grocery stores allow us to avoid interacting with people who are different from ourselves.

The Washington Post published a fascinating feature over the weekend on the life and near-death of the military commissary, the tax-free, on-base grocery store that has evolved over the years from a drab surplus warehouse to a modern supermarket peddling every condiment in existence.

As one business adviser in the story asks while he's wandering the aisles of a commissary at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia: "Why is the federal government in the business of selling so many sizes of ketchup?”

The obvious answer is that a federal government now forced to cut food stamps should probably trim its supermarket overhead as well. But commissaries have proven hard to phase out – even in supermarket-dense urban areas – for at least one reason that speaks to how Americans shop for groceries today in many neighborhoods. Here's an advocate of commissaries with the American Logistics Association:

Patrick B. Nixon, the president of the logistics association, contends that military personnel should not be forced to shop for groceries in civilian stores. "The military community is different from the rest of the nation," Nixon said in an interview. "These stores are manned by people who are familiar with their situation, who appreciate what they're doing for our country."

Tax-free grocery shopping for military families isn't at stake here (in one proposal, chains like Walmart would offer identical discounts if commissaries were closed down). What Nixon is defending here is a culture, and it's a pretty startling suggestion: Military families shouldn't have to buy their lunch meat and hamburger buns in stores where people aren't like them.

Perhaps what he really means is that wounded veterans require particular service, or that their injuries shouldn't draw on-lookers every time they enter a grocery store. But consider the broader implication: If we cloister wounded veterans away from civilians in the everyday places where we're most likely to bump into each other, couldn't civilians easily forget they exist?

Military leaders have already warned of such a world. "For a growing number of Americans," then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2010, "service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do." Admiral Mike Mullen cautioned the military one year later that "we don’t know the American people. The American people don’t know us."

In this context, a neighborhood grocery store is precisely the place where we might come to know, or at least encounter, people unlike ourselves. Maybe we won't strike up a great debate in the frozen-food aisle. But chances are, if we attend different schools and worship in different churches and eat in different restaurants, we might at least become aware of each other – as veterans or single mothers or devout Muslims – in the check-out line. Everyone needs groceries.

"It’s true that grocery stores have always been places where people confronted difference," says Tracey Deutsch, a historian at the University of Minnesota who has studied the evolution of supermarkets.

The last time you had to push your shopping cart aside for a sprinting toddler, you encountered difference in a grocery store (assuming the toddler was not your own). The same could be said if you've ever peered into a stranger's basket at the cash register. Haven't you wondered at some point, scanning another person's purchases, what it would be like to cook with coconut milk, or to eat a vegetarian dinner?

In this sense, grocery stores have long functioned as a social space where – even if briefly – we might move through a universe that's larger than the one we encounter in so many other moments of our daily lives. Instead of reinforcing difference, as Nixon implies, grocery stores have often been places where we witness it.

Today, however, it is not just military families who are able to stock their cupboards amid like-minded clientele. The grocery industry much more broadly has been encouraging all of us to do the same. Within my own neighborhood in Northern Virginia, in an area not much larger than a single square mile, there is a Whole Foods, a Trader Joe's, a hyper-high-end "Balducci's Food Lover's Market," a couple of corner stores, a small Safeway, a supermarket I have repeatedly heard referred to as the "Ghetto Giant," and a vast hole in the ground soon to become a Harris Teeter. For the most part, these stores are not in direct competition with each other; they have each taken a niche.

"As a historian, that is one of the most interesting things to me. It’s a dramatic change in the logic of grocery stores," Deutsch says. Traditionally, supermarkets have been large-volume, low-margin enterprises where profit depends on bringing in as many customers as possible. "The increased stratification of the food market, of grocery stores, is really marked and quite dramatic."

The grocery store itself has gone through a couple of significant shifts, from the dry goods store with a grocer behind the counter, to the self-service chain, to the modern supermarket. Each chapter has had its own sociology. The advent of self-service stores around the 1920s, for instance, enabled black shoppers for the first time in many communities to receive the same service as whites. "They didn't have to take the rancid butter," says historian Lisa Tolbert, "or the rancid oats the grocer was trying to get rid of."

The latest evolution is the intricate dicing of the market. "The targeting is more sophisticated and more diverse," Tolbert says. Shoppers are defined into groups "not so much by their neighborhood where they live next to each other – for Trader Joe's, people drive from one town to another – but they're identified around culture groups, like foodies."

Whole Foods is a grocery store not just for high-income shoppers, but arguably for high-income liberal shoppers. Trader Joe's packages tamales and chicken cutlets in the perfect proportions for single adults and young couples. There's no "family size" anything to be found there (including in the width of the shopping aisles). Costco, on the other hand, is family-friendly by default, but inaccessible to anyone without a car or a walk-in pantry. And then there's Walmart, a place for shoppers who know exactly how much they have to spend on milk.

This stratification means that many of us can now restock the fridge without ever experiencing much diversity, even in the midst of tremendously diverse cities. We've sorted our grocery stores, just as we've sorted ourselves. The adverse consequences seem clearer for the divide between military families and civilians, two groups particularly in need of more casual contact. But the same argument holds more broadly: Perhaps we'd think more about the problems and stories of people unlike ourselves if we recognized them from the cereal aisle.

Top image: Aleph Studio/Shutterstock.com

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