Publix Figures

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By Sean Dietrich

Ask anyone and they’ll tell you, I’m a Publix man. I don’t shop at other grocery stores very often.
The main reason for this is because I’ve spent the majority of my life living within a mile or two from a Publix. I have a long history of visiting this local supermarket, even when I don’t need groceries. I just like the store.
It’s pleasant. People are cheerful. I like to walk around the aisles singing along with the overhead music, getting free samples from the lady at the free-sample kiosk who always smiles at me, warmly, and says in a motherly voice, “This is your last sample, sir, or I’m calling security.”
I have friends who work at Publix. Usually, I see my pal, Shawn, stocking shelves. He’s worked there for years. Shawn always waves. I always wave back. This is such a little, almost insignificant gesture, but you don’t get this kind of thing at big-box stores.
When I was a younger man, I played music with local bands. I was sort of a utility musician for hire. I drove long distances to play loud music in beer joints, taverns, roadhouses, saloons, frat parties, Methodist quilting clubs, etc.
So I was always clocking off work late at night. And I was always starving. Musicians spend their lives on the brink of starvation. There’s an old saying among musicians: “A musician without a wife or a girlfriend probably lives under a bridge.”
But getting back to Publix. Every night after work—and I mean EVERY night—I would stop by the store for a deli sandwich. Always the same thing. Roast beef on white. Extra mustard and mayo. Add pickles.
It was always the same lady behind the deli counter, waiting for me. She knew I was coming. She would have my sandwich wrapped and waiting. It would still be warm. I don’t know how she did it.
One night, she had even included a box of fried chicken. I asked, “What’s this?”
She said, “No charge, it’s the end of the night, we were gonna throw it out, I thought you might like it.”
So you can imagine how excited I was when my friend, Chad, told me the news about Publix. Chad grew up working on dairy farms in Northwest Florida. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, these kinds of farms have been feeling the pinch.
“People don’t always think about farmers,” Chad says. “But with all these school closings and restaurants closing, think about it, everyone quits buying food.”
The dairy farm where Chad works has had to discard shiploads of milk it couldn’t sell since the epidemic started.
It’s this way all over Florida, a state that’s almost neck and neck with California for having the highest grossing agricultural industry. So this isn’t just a little problem.
This kind of thing is happening everywhere. In Ohio, for example, dairy farmers are dumping metric tons of unsold whole milk into huge pits and covering the holes with bulldozers. In Wisconsin, old family farms are going under. In Idaho and Oregon, commercial farmers are losing their businesses.
Shay Myers, a third-generation Idaho onion farmer, just buried a million pounds of onions in the soil because his product was going to waste.
A million pounds.
Myers told reporters, “Lotta people say to me, ‘There’s still 320 million people in the United States, so we should still be eating the same amount of onions.’ When was the last time you made onion rings at home for dinner?”
In South Florida, things are getting dire. Farmers aren’t even bothering to harvest crops. They’re plowing through acres of healthy green beans, lettuce, tomatoes, squash, cabbage, and God only knows what else. They can’t sell it, so they’re burying it.
“This is a disaster,” says Chad. “Farmers are losing millions every day.”
This is where Publix comes in. A few days ago, the supermarket chain announced that it is going to help farmers. And I mean big time. Publix’s plan is to purchase a Titanic-load of produce and milk directly from local farmers to help them out.
The best part is, Publix is not going to sell this surplus food in stores, they’re donating it to Feed America foodbanks where it will be given away.
In case you’re wondering how much produce this actually is, well, let’s just say we’re not talking small potatoes (get it?).
Within the first week of Publix’s spending spree, the supermarket chain plans on buying 150,000 pounds of fresh produce, and 43,500 pounds of milk. And that’s just the first seven days.
To give you an idea of how much produce and dairy this adds up to be, imagine that you are a tomato. Got it? Good. Now imagine that everyone in the state of Georgia is a gallon of 2% milk. Good. Now pretend that all the people in your senior graduating class are giant misshapen eggplants with moldy black spots. Perfect.
I hope you’re starting to get the picture now because I am completely lost.
I asked another farmer friend what Publix’s initiative would mean for farmers. He said, “This is huge, I think for some farmers, it might mean that they can pay their bills.”
I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I’m not a reporter. And I have no affiliation with Publix supermarkets. I have no affiliation with anyone. In fact, if you were to meet me in real life, you’d laugh because I’m a big, goofy guy with a severe overbite.
But I do shop at Publix. And right now, I feel pretty good saying that.
I could sure go for a deli sandwich about now.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist, and podcast host, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Southern Living, Garden and Gun, The Tallahassee Democrat, Good Grit, South Magazine, Alabama Living, the Birmingham News, Thom Magazine, The Mobile Press Register, and he has authored nine books, and is the creator of the Sean of the South Podcast.

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