Prior to the multiplication of national chains, grocery shopping in America was both diverse and yet very uniform: city dwellers bought food at small, family-owned markets near their homes. These markets were as dispersed as mist compared to the big boxes we shop in today. As one-of-a-kind businesses, they varied from dangerous and corrupt to clean and honest. But in doing so, they mirrored the variety of human communities they served.
Over the last 100 years or so, we have traded that variety, particularity and locality for uniformity and predictability. And this whole process played out in the marketplace with - as far as I can tell - not one word of comment from the Christian community.
In one sense, this is unsurprising: at the same time that the first grocery chain, A&P, was changing the world of food retailing, Christianity in America had retreated from changing the world to changing individual hearts, one at a time. After the Civil War, Christianity became more interested in soul saving than in the shape of public life, including commerce. Only recently have North American Christians begun to take these topics up again.
So the “While You Were Out” slip for the church - broadly understood as evangelical Christianity in North America - shows that we went from a nation of family-owned groceries to a nation of chain stores ranging from locally huge to nationally gigantic. Does this matter to the church? Well, nine out of 10 churches started in the last 20 years have “Community” in their name, so it would seem to matter.
But what does shopping at a local grocery versus a chain have to do with community? For all its faults (and they are not insignificant), a local grocer was embedded in its neighborhood. The store suffered the ups and downs of its “parish,” developed relationships with its customers, extended credit to people short of cash and, in short, practiced that odd verb of Wendell Berry’s: neighboring.
A chain supermarket, on the other hand, can be counted on for lots of things: a wide variety of products, competitive prices, standards of cleanliness and accountability to distant owners who know nothing of the particular location of that store (except its demographics, which they know very well). As a society, we have made this trade (localness for variety, personal knowledge for consistency) over and over and over again, without the church ever once weighing in.
Were I to speak for the church, I would want to say, hold on a minute. Isn’t the corner grocery store, within walking distance of my home, some component of a flourishing community? And isn’t sending all my grocery money to a company in Des Moines or Cincinnati (or wherever) an act that betrays my neighbors in some small way? And isn’t there a benefit in the small-scale accountability of a local grocer (“You’re out of Hamm’s beer, Sam.” “Well, you drink too much beer, anyway, David.”) versus the impersonal, large-scale accountability of a chain (“Everyday low prices!” “Triple rinsed produce!”)?
I’m not saying that supermarkets are evil. Supermarkets are the result of billions of consumer choices accumulated over the last 100 years or so. I’m only saying that when it abdicated the public square, the church missed an opportunity to consider what we were giving up when we sold out the corner grocery for the supermarket a few miles away.
Well, now that we’re at least thinking about it again, can we get the local grocery back? Maybe. It depends on the choices we make every day. We can choose to buy direct from producers at farmers’ markets, where that option exists. We can protest (a little) against overhyped national brands by shopping at Trader Joe’s. And should we be fortunate enough to have a local grocer in our neighborhood, we can choose to shop there. Because we vote things in and out of existence with our wallets every day.
You want to be a real radical? Open a local grocery. I’ll shop there.
(Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.)