Discussing
Grocery shopping and community

David Greusel

Christian Bell
September 27, 2011

Scale is a big problem for local grocers. They generally can’t compete in price with big-box stores for staple items. Where they’ve had success is in specialty products and services: The long-forgotten full-service butcher, for example.<br><br>It deserves to be pointed out too that the big-box stores have had success bringing more natural and organic options to shelves at affordable prices than smaller grocers can. From a health and wellness perspective, this is a win across the community.<br>Here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the big-box supermarket (Meijer) also happens to our neighbor with its headquarters on the NW side of the city. They’ve done some terrific work in our community, such as building a beautiful botanical garden. Shopping there isn’t necessarily supporting my down-the-street neighbor, but it is supporting a lot of people in my community, including friends who work there. The other chain supermarket is also headquartered locally.We still get our produce, eggs, dairy, and select meats from the farmer’s market. It’s not a perfect compromise, but at least where I live, regardless of where I shop, the money stays in the community.

Guest
September 27, 2011

I have heard the suggestion to "shop local" from time to time, and while I can certainly see its advantages, I wonder about some of the assumptions behind it.  When I shop in a "big-box" store, some of my money goes to another city, yes, but some of it supports my neighbors who work for the local site of that store.  If everyone shopped at their corner grocery store, eventually the big box store in town would go out of business.  Then 50 of my neighbors lose their jobs.  Two or three of them may be needed at the corner store, but our local unemployment levels have also increased. How does that fit into the value of building community?

Rickld
September 27, 2011

Before homeowners had convenient, substantial refrigeration, people had to shop every day. Small neighborhood grocers lack the purchasing power of larger chains and are more expensive with much less variety. My local Fred Meyer chain is sensitive to the local market (we have a large Indian population due to Intel) and carries a virtual Indian grocery store worth of ethnic food choices. It is also sensitive to local hispanics and carries vegetables (like cactus leaves) and peppers that are indigenous to South America. I can also find Thai basil, Thai peppers, coconut milk, lemongrass, carne asada meat, habeneros, great curries, a huge selection of fresh, regional olives, buffalo, octopus, the variety is staggering and the prices are affordable. They also carry a fairly complete line of organic produce and packaged food. I still enjoy going to the local farmer’s market for ultra fresh local produce and fruit that is in season (this is an expensive luxury). And I enjoy going to specialty asian or organic grocery stores (where I buy grass fed beef-twice as expensive as supermarket). But for the thousands of relatively poor hispanics and folks in our town who are on a tight budget, the supermarket is an incredible boon. Poor people pay more, have less variety, less freshness and less healthy alternatives with small corner grocery stores. I sometimes feel that I am a world traveler or in a foreign country when I see the diversity of shoppers in my grocery store. It also makes me smile when the church I go to (Beaverton Foursquare in Oregon) has substantial populations of Bhuttanese (65), Koreans, Hispanics, africans, visitors from China and white suburbanites all worshipping Jesus! It's a little taste of heaven.

Monica Selby
September 27, 2011

Perhaps I am ignorant here, since we don't have a Trader Joe's where I live, but isn't it, too, a national chain?  How exactly is shopping there "better" than shopping at other grocery store down the street?<br><br>I have to agree with the other commenters here.  It's fun to be nostalgic for the simpler time of the corner grocery store, but with 5 people to feed, I wouldn't shop there anyway.  The big box stores can get a variety of good quality products for lower prices, including organic and gluten-free.  <br><br>I'm not sure I see the parallel between being a radical Christian and opening a local grocery store.  If I wanted to reach a community--and there are several food deserts in my city--I would rather work to bring them substantial, diverse, affordable food.  I wouldn't really care if it was a national chain or not.

Cbhuyett
September 27, 2011

My family operated a small bakery serving our own shop, plus 5 local Mom-and-Pop groceries and two locally owned independent super markets. I remember one of the Mpm-and-Pop owners complaining that the A&amp;P and Safeway stores could sell groceries cheaper retail than he could buy them wholesale, and he could see the handwriting on the wall.  Today, all of the little groceries and all but one independent supermarket in that area are out of business.  It seems that people want whatever is the cheapest.  If you put two widgets side-by-side with one locally made that sells for $2 and one made in China which sells for $1 nearly everyone will buy the $1 one.  We do need to develop more local "walk to" shopping areas like Brookside, and maybe, when gas gets to $10 a gallon, people will go back to buying the $2 widgets!

Melayton
September 27, 2011

I wonder about the logic of shopping at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and the like as a way to fight against "big-box" chains. While they brand themselves in terms of a certain social ethic and have more organic food, possibly even locally-grown produce, they also can cost a lot more. That is money that could be used well or not so well, of course, but if it's used well, it could do a lot of good - perhaps even building *actual* community, not just the illusion of it.

Xioc1138
September 27, 2011

It is interesting to see when issues like this get made into religious matters.  It isn't.<br><br>The family mom and pop still exists and even flourishes where it is still relevant.  Even if they could compete on price point and variety of products, they and their supply chains would be crushed under the weight of trying to handle the same kind of traffic that larger grocery stores are capable of handling. <br><br>For every Walmart in a city there would have to be hundreds if not thousands of smaller mom and pop grocery stores just to handle the foot traffic alone.  Think of the consequence that this would have on the environment, and the economy, and local infrastructure.  The math alone just doesn't work.<br><br>Many of the mom and pop stores died natural deaths simply because they weren't capable of coping with the growth in their locale.  Many still survive today because their locale hasn't grown.<br><br>And please don't tell me to open a store so that you can shop there.  That simply isn't true.  <br><br>If Christians want real radical - do something that most churches reject, evangelize.

Dsh
September 27, 2011

Funny you should post this today, when the independent local (three miles from home, in the village) grocery store closes. Tomorrow the new owners will reopen it as a Tops (semi-locally-based chain). I sometimes shopped at the local store, but bought other items at BJ's which although 15 miles from home is right next to the expressway on my commute.

Jamesggilmore
September 28, 2011

It's incredibly problematic to reduce decision-making here to a purely economic frame; if we are Christians, then we acknowledge that we should be answering to a higher call than economics in all of our lives, including our decisions on where to buy things.<br><br>At every Wal-Mart, each and every dollar of profits leaves the community and goes to Bentonville or to Wal-Mart's shareholders. Wal-Mart has been known to close in a community once they decide to open a store nearby—or if the workers threaten to organize. And Wal-Mart is known to cause massive infrastructure problems, because when they want to come to a community, they get the local officials to offer them all kinds of tax breaks to do it—to say nothing of many Wal-Marts <i>not</i> being required to pay for the road widenings, extra traffic lights, extra police protection, etc. they draw from the community. <br><br>And all for a bunch of minimum-wage jobs from a company that is known to abuse its workers, deny their right to organize, keep as many of them part-time as possible, and do anything and everything in their power to "keep labor costs down" regardless of if it has any shred of morality.<br><br>Quite simply, Wal-Mart—and each and every other big-chain retailer—has absolutely no commitment to and no concern for the communities in which they reside. Don't let their "we care" things about how much community service they do deceive you; at the end of the day, your money is <i>leaving</i> your community instead of circulating <i>around</i> it, and if they decide that leaving your community in the lurch would make them more money, each and every one of those big-chain retailers will do it in a heartbeat.<br><br>On the contrary, a community-based shopowner knows that his or her employees are also his or her neighbors—so there's an incentive to treat them right. When the business is profitable, the money stays in the community and the shopowner will often invest it right back into the community—often by keeping those profits in a local community bank instead of a national chain thus enabling it to lend to other community members, or by donating lots of money to community groups or worthy causes within the community, or by expanding the business or investing in other area businesses and providing even more for a healthy community. And a community-based shopowner will stay open in a community until the very bitter end, because this is <i>their</i> community, not Store #2251, and they have committed to being a part of it.<br><br>To reduce all of that to an economic equation is disturbingly robotic; the trend among Christians to make "business" a separate category of pursuits, a sector in which the Christian's goals aren't to love God and their neighbor before themselves, is incredibly problematic and a deep heresy. To the Christian, there is no such thing as a matter that <i>isn't</i> a religious matter.

Jamesggilmore
September 28, 2011

If the big box retailer went out of business, there'd be enough business there for a number of smaller corner stores, who would be employing neighbors (and thus, much less likely to mistreat them than an amoral corporate behemoth).<br><br>And the profits would stay in town—doubly so if the shopowner makes an effort to sell local products.

Rickld
September 28, 2011

James, you have an ideological argument that is unrealistic. Corner neighborhood grocery stores owned by Uncle Billy and Pa sound idealistic and nostalgic but they hurt the very people they are supposed to help. They are expensive, with a limited selection...and there are many desperate people today on tight budgets or fixed incomes. Larger stores can afford to serve diverse ethnic communities (read my earlier comment about the Bhuttanese, Koreans and Hispanics) and organic consumers at reasonable prices. Our Thriftway chain store offers book signing for local authors, hosts a pianist playing carols during the holidays, plays Bruce Springsteen over the sound system, showcases kosher food during the jewish holidays, features a deli of ready-made foods, offers bulk food, is leading on eliminating plastic packaging, makes an effort to buy fresh local fruit and produce when possible, and reduces the carbon footprint that multiple tiny stores inevitably create. The pharmacy and many of the clerks know me by name. The local store, if it exists, is probably teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and no doubt deals with the same Bank of Americas and Citibanks that we all deal with. Small local banks offering loans to local folks? Get real. This is not Bedford Falls. No matter how low the interest rate goes, no one today is getting loans. Instead of being ideological, be humanitarian. I believe in local stores, but only as specialty retailers offering fairly expensive ethnic foods, organics and local farm produce for audiences with more discretionary income.

Steve McMullen
September 29, 2011

This article, and the comment thread, have a lot going on.  Let me take on a couple of the big questions.  <br><br>First, if Christians should care about the implications of where they shop and what they buy (and this seems reasonable), we really ought to do so with a lot more products than food.  Almost no one one buys locally produced clothing anymore.  Almost no one can find locally produced automobiles - even here in Michigan it is difficult to conceive of what it would mean for a car to be "locally" produced.  The reason is that there is a large cost saving from increasing scale in both production and retail, and this should not be ignored.  Waste is waste, and we should have a really good reason if we are going to reject the efficiencies of scale.  If everyone decided to buy local we would be poorer, there would be fewer good jobs, not more.Moreover, we ought to consider "large vs. small" or "local vs. national" separate from the business practices of the firms.  For every comparison between a virtuous small town retailer and evil Walmart, we could just as easily point out that the wages for a high-school graduate cashier are often higher at Target than at the corner neighborhood drug store.  Small firms are often less likely to offer their employees health benefits as well.  Thus, I think the scale question is at least plausibly independent of the question of business practicesAll that said, perhaps community relationships provide a reason to buy local. Maybe there is something important about buying from and selling to people who live near us.  This is not a "local jobs" argument though, it is an argument about relationships being the proper context for market exchange.  If this is something that Christians should commit to, then lets make that case separate from the false economic populism that dislikes large corporations because the money goes to some other community that needs it, as if shareholders are only people if they go to church with us or live down the street.  And lets not romanticize the small "Mom &amp; Pop" shops too much.  They are good at doing what Greusel argues they are, but as he says, there is plenty to dislike as well.

Bbsat
September 29, 2011

We don't worship at our corner church any more either, but drive for miles to the mega community church. Hmm.....parallels perhaps?

Zlthomson
September 30, 2011

My grandfather (and now my dad and uncle) own a small corner grocery store. Even though I don't live in the community it serves, I grew up virtually in that community, as I'd hear of my grandfather delivering groceries to elderly customers, extending credit to certain families, donating to the local church's food pantry, opening the store early on Christmas morning because of one customer's ham crisis and letting the local fire department shop at a discount. <br><br>Our store was and is a true example of Greusel's depiction, "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."  My grandfather knew everybody name, he knew their kids names, he knew their situations. For him, it WAS spiritual, a simple way that he could show Christ-like love to everyone he met and to everyone that came through the doors. <br><br>I appreciated the article and the ensuing dialogue. Growing up in the family biz may make me biased, but I completely agree that the loss of the mom-and-pop corner stores are a true loss for society and our communities.

PVanDyken
October 1, 2011

Thank you for this article, David.  It reminds me of another Wendell Berry quote where he defines true patriotism as the ability of a nation to "sustainably feed, clothe, and shelter its citizens, using its own sources and by its own work."  If this is true on the national level, it is certainly true on the local level as well. <br><br>Knowing that a variety of vegetables, fruits, baked goods and livestock are produced and sold in my area, why would I choose to purchase something shipped from (potentially) thousands of miles away?  Yes, it may cost me a bit more to buy local, but I know who that money is going to.  I also know that since that money is staying local, it will better benefit my community.<br><br>I must differ from those who say this is not a Christian matter as well.  A quick google search reveals that the CEO of Wal Mart made $35 million in 2010.  If you work this out to an hourly wage, the CEO would make more in an hour that the average Wal Mart employee makes in a year.  This is a justice issue, plain and simple.  Books such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah show us God's desire for justice as acceptable worship.  And part of my response to this call is to avoid stores that operate with such an unjust business plan.

Makemenfree
October 1, 2011

Christians have probably been silent on this issue because there is nothing to say.  Who can be against gigantic, clean, inviting grocery stores?  Our large, local chain just redid the store in our area.  I love it.  At least an acre of choices.  I consider it a monument to the benefits that freedom brings us.

Shari Dragovich
October 2, 2011

Your last line, "To the Christian, there is no such thing as a matter that isn't a religious matter." -- is precisely what I was working out in my mind as I read this post and the subsequent comments. I agree.

Shari Dragovich
October 2, 2011

I read this post the other day and have been considering it since. Interestingly, it crossed my mind early this morning while reading Wendell Berry's poem, "What if, in the high, restful sanctuary," -- strange, I know. But, what I considered didn't have to do as much with the importance of local grocers and community (at least not directly), but local grocers and their more direct connection to God's glory in creation. We lose more than community when we super-size. We lose a direct connection, thus understanding of God's magnificence in creation. We've lost an awareness of the land and how God richly provides from it. And, in that, there is a loss of community as well... community with God as we work directly with His creation, community with nature itself (not in the spooky, 'worship it' sense) as we toil over it and cause it to produce, and community with one another as we share in the burden of the toiling and then offering it to the community around us. <br><br>I grew up on a mid-sized (500+ acre) farm in the mid-west. My father raised hogs and farmed the land. One of the saddest realizations I had as an adult raising my own children (at the time, in the suburbs of D.C.) is that the majority of Americans don't live with an understanding or appreciation for their food sources. There's no direct involvement with the land or the farmers who work it, thus no sense of responsibility or deep-rooted efforts to preserve it (beyond pop-culture's, "Save the Planet" mantra) or fight for legislation (or the lack therof) which promotes the continuation of it. <br><br>Having said all this, I confess-- I shop at Wal-Mart. We buy our food from the commissary on post. I have a large family and we would spend a fortune (in both gas and actual groceries) if we bought all our groceries at local (not even very local for us) grocers. I long for a time when we are able to own some land, grow our own garden, shop locally without having to drive an hour to the co-op, and maybe belong, once again, to a CSA (which we did when we lived in D.C.) that doesn't cost me an arm and leg to join.<br><br>I guess I don't have a solid opinion to offer-- just observations and my own, "Amen! I agree," but lament that living it out is hard. <br><br>Oh.. in case anyone's wondering, the part of Berry's poem which struck such a chord and reminded me again of this post...<br><br>...We must turn back into the peopled dark<br>Of our unraveling century, the grief <br><br>Of waste, the agony of haste and noise.<br>It is hard return from Sabbath rest<br>To lifework of the fields, yet we rejoice,<br>Returning, less condemned in being blessed<br><br>By vision of what human work can make:<br>A harmony between forest and field,<br>The world as it was given for love's sake,<br>The world by love and loving work revealed...<br><br>Gift that nurtures and protects. Then workday<br>And Sabbath live together in one place.<br>Though mortal, incomplete, that harmony <br>Is our one possibility of peace.<br><br>(from "What if in the high, restful sanctuary," "A Timbered Choir, The Sabbath poems 1979-1997)<br><br>Probably not obvious to anyone to me, is the poem's speaking to the rejoicing over the vision of what human work can make; a vision lost as we've distanced ourselves from the land and those who work it.

Shari Dragovich
October 2, 2011

Yikes! I just re-read the last line of what I wrote and I didn't mean that the poem's meaning isn't obvious to anyone but me -- that didn't write up correctly. I meant that the connection between local grocers and the poem isn't very obvious, because there isn't really a connection-- only in a very distant, round-about way.<br><br>My apologies for sounding overly educated and uppity. I wrote it poorly. : )

Rickd
October 2, 2011

In my 2 small raised bed organic gardens in suburbia that took me one afternoon to make, I grow broccoli, spinach, onions, garlic, tomatoes, zuccini, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, fennel and a few other things that give me fresh vegetables for a good part of the year and enough to share. Like you, I still do a good bit of shopping at my local grocery store chain retailer for reasons of cost and convenience. I see no contradiction here. Food is expensive and I have empathy with large families on a limited budget. I think it is silly to be so ideologically pure that we harm our neighbors and the poor. "The kingdom of God is not in eating and drinking but in righteousness Joy and peace in the Holy Spirit." I rejoice over the back yard gardens and the retail stores that hands have made. Thanks Shari.

David Greusel
October 3, 2011

Steve,<br>Thanks for your comment. I have thought a lot about the economies of scale, which seem to drive nearly everything in commerce these days, and I keep coming back to thoughts like those expressed in my post above. Certainly waste in the sense of flushing money down the toilet is not godly--using Benjamins to light your cigar, so to speak--but I wonder if spending a few dollars more at a local store versus a supermarket (whether of food, clothes or electronics) is really waste? I struggle to find a biblical mandate to always find the lowest cost option. It seems to me, rather, that the Bible often teaches that we should suffer a little more to help our neighbor. At least that's how I read it, but I could be mistaken. Maybe you see it differently.

David Greusel
October 3, 2011

Xioc1138,<br>If I could divide a 100,000 square foot Walmart into 20 5,000 square foot stores that sold food, clothing, hardware, tires, etc., what have I given up except for Walmart's extraordinary supply chain? Those 20 stores would employ as many "associates" as the Walmart (or more), with the added benefit of knowing their names and their families. They would be owned by local residents, keeping not only the employee wages but also the company's profits in town. I grant freely that stuff would cost more than it does at Walmart, but I think I could live with that.

David Greusel
October 3, 2011

Monica, my comment about Trader Joe's was embedded in the post--you are at least not purchasing overhyped national brands, of which TJ's has very few. It is true that TJs is a chain, so your dollars are still flowing out of town. I just offered it up as an option.

Rickd
October 3, 2011

Do you do the grocery shopping? I'm happy you could live with more expensive food prices. But for the family of 5 on a limited budget, for those out of work, for those on a fixed income, every dollar counts. The difference between a local store and a chain store can be 1/3 to 1/2. Plus you would have inefficient stores in danger of going out of business. This is ideology VS humanitarian reality. The clerks at my local chain store know me by name, they live in my neighborhood, they keep their wages in town. Let me guarantee you, 25,000 square foot clothing stores first are going to go out of business and second they take out loans from the same national banks that we all use. When there were no such thing as credit cards, Uncle Billy's grocery store could offer credit, but today credit is ubiquitous and NO local story is offering free unsecured credit to neighbors down on their luck.

Jason Erik Summers
October 3, 2011

Rick,<br><br>While I disagree with David on a number of points, I think your rhetoric here is a bit hyperbolic.  <br><br>In particular, your blanket assertion about costs of food is simply not true.  I've lived at the poverty line and in the much vilified top 2%.  During my less-well-off days, the least expensive way for me to purchase food (and I know, because I tracked spending to the penny) was via local farms (via CSA structures) and the local co-op.  There were some exceptions to these rules, but they largely held.  That might seem odd, but the likely reason for the discrepancy is that everything I purchased was a raw ingredient (e.g., dried beans, not canned; flour, not bread).  I will happily grant you that my experience would not hold for purchase of foods that are "finished goods."<br><br>Now, I will also grant you that for suburban, middle-class families, your arguments probably hold.  They are neither in the position to trade time for savings as I was during my low-wage days, nor in the position I am now where I retain frugality (buying best value and not wasting), but find absolute cost is not an issue.<br><br>Also, what I want to point out is that those economic situations the modern middle class finds themselves in are not absolute laws, but rather products of the social structure they are in/have chosen.  Families of five today have much more money (inflation adjusted) than did the same family of my grandparents' era.  However, the cost to maintain middle-class status is more expensive by more than that gain (cf. <a href="http://www.ft.com/intl/indepth/the-squeezed-middle" rel="nofollow">http://www.ft.com/intl/indepth...</a> ).  Other choices are possible, but not normed societally.  Big-box stores meet the needs for the societally normed choices and thrive in so doing.  But it is an absolute red herring to talk about local shopping as though it is only a luxury for the elite.<br><br>So what I am advocating instead is coexistence of a plurality of market models that allows for multiple scales to thrive.  Frankly, that's what we find in a healthy economy.  To suggest either local is the only way or local is the totem of the rich and big-box stores are the salvation of the poor is to fetishize one mode of economic functioning.<br><br>js

Rickd
October 4, 2011

Jason, I was not comparing chain grocery store prices to CSAs, Farmers markets or the local member coop. I was comparing the prices at the local Mom and Pop one location grocery store to prices for the same items at the big chain store. There is no comparison. I have a subscription to Grocery Headquarters, a magazine about the business and I am very involved with food stores on behalf of my food manufacturer clients. I can also save a huge amount of money by eating beans and rice bought in bulk and cheap cuts of meat at Winco. As I said, I raise my own vegetables essentially for free in my home garden. I am not talking about how to live cheaply but comparing the price and efficiency of single location Mom and Pop grocery stores to large, multi-location chain stores. Did you not read that I support a plurality of stores? Single location stores are more expensive yet they offer some specialty items that sre hard to find otherwise. I’m glad absolute cost is not an issue for you. It is for the rest of us. Do you have any empathy for the poor?

Guest
October 4, 2011

Jason, you touched on an important issue that I would like to expand on if I may? You mentioned how you lived on basic supplies, not packaged when you where struggling.<br><br>At the risk of going off topic... I think the local Church Community may have an important role to play, not in directing so much the commercialism of society but in preparing our young people for the lean times ahead. <br><br>Everything I learned about cooking I learned from my Grandmothers, the poorest members contributing the largest dinners to our church suppers and then later I gleaned more wisdom from the shop keepers near our tiny apartment while I was going to University. More than once I entered the butcher's with less than $2 in change and told him what I had and told him I needed meat for stew to last us several days. He always gave me a quarter back. He said, "A lady always needs a quarter for the phone."... but I digress. <br><br>My grandmothers and countless church dinners taught me the value of a good crock pot, that rice and beans come from from bags not cans and that cake doesn't come from a box. In our busy world, too many of our young people eat out of restaurants and prepackaged food. Even the food bank asks for and distributes primarily ready to eat canned food.<br><br>If our local churches wanted to start a fresh food box program from local farmers, I think that is a great start at community. Pair that with a regular cooking night where young people are taught by senior members how to cook and enjoy squash and kale and turnips, soak beans and make biscuits without a mix. I think that is the kind of community involvement that leaves a lasting legacy of compassion. <br><br>We are the hands and feet of Jesus when we take the things we have learned from our life lessons and pass them on to others.<br><br>...Writing this post makes me miss my Grandma. I need to make some Marmalade. <br><br>

Jamesggilmore
October 4, 2011

<i>Who can be against gigantic, clean, inviting grocery stores?</i><br>When those "gigantic, clean, inviting grocery stores" take the profits and send it out of my community to their corporate headquarters, rather than keeping them in the community where they can improve the common life of those in the neighborhood, I'm against them.<br><br>When those "gigantic, clean, inviting grocery stores" pay their employees like they're expendable and replaceable, deny them their right to organize and collectively bargain, and use their scale to treat the people who work for them as if they're just cogs in a machine, I'm against them.<br><br>When those "gigantic, clean, inviting grocery stores," owned by corporate shareholders, supplant a local store owned by a neighbor, thus driving him/her out of business and removing a pillar of the local community all so that they can save me a dime on spaghetti by underpaying their suppliers and their employees, I'm against them.<br><br>And when "freedom" is seen in purely economic, negative-liberty terms—rather than as part of a tapestry of social life that also includes communal responsibility, basic neighborliness, and contributing to the overall health and welfare of one's fellow human beings—I'm against that too.

Jamesggilmore
October 4, 2011

<i>James, you have an ideological argument that is unrealistic. Corner neighborhood grocery stores owned by Uncle Billy and Pa sound idealistic and nostalgic but they hurt the very people they are supposed to help. They are expensive, with a limited selection...and there are many desperate people today on tight budgets or fixed incomes.</i><br><br>Know what's expensive? Buying pineapples out of season, thousands of miles away from where they grow.<br><br>Eating in-season and local is significantly less expensive, as my farmer's market will attest... they take food stamps there too, so that folks who are receiving government food assistance are able to take advantage of fresh food that tastes better than a tomato grown in Peru and picked and shipped while green, and that benefits the local community too.<br><br>Also, as an aside—maybe if those of us who <i>can</i> afford it weren't sending our money out of the community by saving a dime on spaghetti at the MegaLoMart, fewer people in our communities would be on tight budgets, as the more often money circulates within the community, the more people it helps.<br><br><i>Larger stores can afford to serve diverse ethnic communities (read my earlier comment about the Bhuttanese, Koreans and Hispanics) and organic consumers at reasonable prices.</i><br><br>In my neighborhood, there are several small grocery stores that serve primarily the local Latino/a population. Where I used to live, in Koreatown in Los Angeles, there were more than a few Korean grocery stores that served that population. In both cases, the food there was/is <i>less</i> expensive than the big chain grocery store.<br><br><i>The local store, if it exists, is probably teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and no doubt deals with the same Bank of Americas and Citibanks that we all deal with.</i><br><br>Perhaps if fewer of us dealt with those Bank of Americas and Citibanks—and instead dealt with our local community banks or credit unions—it would make it easier for the local store to deal with them too.<br><br><i>Small local banks offering loans to local folks? Get real. This is not Bedford Falls. No matter how low the interest rate goes, no one today is getting loans. Instead of being ideological, be humanitarian.</i><br><br>I've heard Wal-Mart described as many things, but "humanitarian" has never been one of them.<br><br><i>I believe in local stores, but only as specialty retailers offering fairly expensive ethnic foods, organics and local farm produce for audiences with more discretionary income.</i><br><br>Organics aren't that much more expensive, when locally grown; we just have to get over this ridiculous cultural expectation that it's somehow a good thing to go buy a "fresh" tomato in February, and return to the old ways of eating foods in season and canning and preserving for the winter. Communities used to be able to provide for themselves in such a way; we could do the same, if we simply changed our expectations from the instant gratification mentality we have as Americans to a more sensible mentality that's in tune with the rhythms of nature and the climate of our local areas.

Xioc1138
October 4, 2011

No mom and pop can keep all of their profits in their community.  The ones that try this die.  Trading between communities, even if they are thousands of miles away is what keeps any community alive.<br><br>Also, mom and pop shops not only don't pay as well, they don't benefit as well either.  Especially in today's Obamacare environment where many mom and pop stores are seeing mega increases to health insurance.

Rickd
October 4, 2011

What grocery store profits? Small independently owned grocery stores made an average net profit before taxes of 1.08% in 2011. And that is on the substantially higher prices they charge their customers for the same products and reduced selection.Most of the large grocery store chains are represented by unions including Albertsons, Ralphs’ Krogers, Safeway, Fred Meyer, Thriftway and Vons. Walmart is one of the few hold-outs although Walmart stores outside the US are all unionized. Notorius and flagarant violaters of worker rights, long hours and low union participation is typically found in small, independent grocery stores (see <a rel="nofollow">ttp://www.nelp.org/page/-/EJP/...</a> you think it comes down to saving a dime on spaghetti? It is more like saving 100$ a month on food bills for a struggling family of 4. Thats money for school supplies, clothes and healthcare.Tapestry of social life offered by small neighborhood grocery stores? Poor choice, lack of fresh fruits and vegetables and high costs are some of the reasons the urban poor (who depend on these neighborhood stores) are suffering from malnutrition, diabetes and obesity.Penn and Teller did an interesting expose on Walmart hatred on their program Bulls**t. I will let you look it up.

Rickd
October 4, 2011

By the way, speaking of the tapestry of social life, I just got my flu shot at the Thriftway chain store this weekend. Big box store usually provide pharmacies and as I say, ours has book signings by local writers, the music we like (Bruce Springsteen, Dylan) on the sound system, a pianist during the holidays, Kosher food featured during the feasts, local fundraising for school teams, features local fruit in its season and I just read that participation in Chamber of Commerce is about double in San Francisco among big chain stores VS small local grocery stores. Farmer's markets are open on Saturday from April to October on Saturday between 9 and 2pm. The price on organic food at the farmers market here is the same or slightly cheaper, but of course the big box stores are the cheapest on conventional produce. I love Farmer's markets and am there most Saturdays in season spending too much money on purple Italian artichokes, Chantrelles, wild mountain honey etc., but they are really inconvenient for most people, especially the poor.

Jason Summers
October 4, 2011

Rick,<br><br>I don't believe in understand the thrust of your comment.<br><br>You replied to David with the claim that the poor could not bear the costs associated with local stores. I argue that is a false claim if made as a blanket statement.<br><br>It seems to me that you are making an argument that support of the local is not tenable for those other than the well off. I argue that your claim is manifestly false.<br><br>Now it seems you are arguing that efficient supply chains afforded by economies of scale are necessary for the poor. I suggest that is a false choice. Yes that is true for certain goods (certain clothes, cars, electronics) but not in all cases. Certainly local alternatives (though certainly not small stores that simply replicate large stores less efficiently) can, as I noted, provide goods of equal or better goods at lower prices.<br><br>Such an argument as yours seems to say that there is a moral imperative to provide a certain set of supply-chain goods at the lowest cost. Certainly that is way to provide a certain lifestyle at the lowest cost, but I fail to see why providing that particular life-style is a moral imperative.<br><br>Moreover, I think your analysis of the role of small stores as providers of niche goods only is too simplistic. Here in DC, many of the poorest folks have no easy access to large stores. Large stores can't derive the margins they would need from that demographic (the same is true in rural towns).<br><br>My point is this: to say that this is a humanitarian issue suggests that the well being of the poorest depends on the low prices on packaged goods provided by efficient supply chains. That assumes those are the best way for them to meet their food needs at the lowest cost. But it is not---a least not in many cases. Efficient supply chains provide the lowest price on a more-expensive option. Removing them, in favor of less efficient small stores, hurts on margin folks making more income who are unable/unwilling to trade their time because the marginal increase in cost still favors them buying packaged items. It is a question of wants and economic tradeoffs, not humanitarian needs.<br><br>JS

Guest
October 4, 2011

I've used Better World Shopper (<a href="http://www.betterworldshopper.com" rel="nofollow">www.betterworldshopper.com</a>) to inform a lot of my day-to-day purchasing decisions.  The book is not comprehensive or perfect, but I respect the sociological/scientific approach that the author takes toward deciding where to spend money -- and to my knowledge, faith isn't one of his criteria.  <br><br>Based on that, I find myself often choosing the most appropriate option I can.  Where I live, I am able to get produce from a small local chain of produce markets that has about 10 stores around our city, and I buy many of my other groceries from a mid-sized grocery chain based in a nearby suburb.  I appreciate that they carry their own brands, rotate items seasonally, and carry local items as well.  Occasionally I stop at a farmer's market or some other local option, like the watermelon truck.  I feel this puts me somewhere on the spectrum between shopping at Dominicks (really, Safeway) or over-spending at a local boutique grocery.  I've done a bit of research on everything from where "my" stores are headquartered (read: where my money is going) to how much they pay their employees.  <br><br>I don't know if there is a perfect option for everyone; I think the best we can do as Christians is to choose the option that lies between affordable and ideal, exactly as the article points out.  I'm not sure if Wal-Mart or Food-4-Less is always the most affordable option, or if it's just the easiest, one-stop option.  The benefit of living in a larger city is that those options or more plentiful.  It's hard to say what I'd do if I lived in a place where Wal-Mart truly was the only store... I'd probably feel compelled to move.

Steve McMullen
October 5, 2011

David,<br>I do think your intuition about preserving relationships that undergird commerce is important.  This may be worth giving up some economies of scale.  I am just not certain about how to make those decisions well.  Moreover, I worry that a lot of the "buy local" rhetoric is not primarily about enabling us to embody more virtues in our commerce, but mostly about an "us vs. them" mentality which I can't accept.  So the important point, I think, is to do our best to separate the two - which must leave us open to buying from large national conglomerates if they are doing business in way that enhances the community, and buying from small local stores if they are.  And if the business model looks about the same, then there is nothing wrong with going for the lowest price.

Jason Erik Summers
October 8, 2011

Rick,<br><br>It seems to me that some of our disagreement is rooted in differing meanings of "the poor."  The contours of those choices available to, e.g., a single-parent family of three with an income of $8000 per year (typical of some projects here in DC), versus a family with two full-time minimum-wage earners and two children (which, depending on the state in question, have a family income of just under $30,000 per year), are quite different.  The latter family, has many restriction making the most cost-effective choices because of their job constraints and are well-served by low-cost traditional stores.  They are also above the HHS poverty guidelines by ~25%, so lack access to certain federal programs.  The former family has access to many federal programs and few if any job-related constraints.  In general, you seem to be petitioning on the behalf of the latter family in your comments (though not so much here).  I think the former family has many excellent options available, but large stores are not necessarily a component of that as the factors influencing the problem are not just those of supply.<br><br>To that point, you are correct that lack of availability in urban neighborhoods is a major problem in terms of justice.  But having larger stores with fresh produce and the like doesn't seem to be a significant factor when studies are done looking at actual eating habits.  The factors that drive choices are much more complex, cognitively, socially, and economically.  Effectively addressing the issue requires far more than low prices.<br><br>js

Rickd
October 10, 2011

We don’t have a disagreement, largely because I can’t make out what you are saying. My contention was that the poor (whether the extreme poor or working poor) in general lack food diversity, and access to fresh healthy food. Small local grocery stores (such as those in large inner urban city centers) have higher prices, emphasize packaged, convenience food, have a smaller selection of fresh healthy food. Plus, for those that are worried about social justice or union issues, smaller stores have less union participation and longer hours compared to larger stores...with the exception of Walmart. They are financially insecure (making a profit of 1.08% last year BEFORE taxes). I gave references, website addresses indicating where that information was drawn from. You seem to be saying the extreme poor in Washington DC ($8,000/year) have better food options (prices only?) than the working poor ($30,000/year). If that were true, (and maybe it is) that would be a strong incentive to quit working so hard, have time to raise my kids and eat better by continuing in poverty. Perhaps that is an unintended consequence of current poverty programs. You are also blaming the poor for their food related health issues becuase you claim they prefer to eat unhealthily. There may be an element of truth to that, but it all starts with more availability and diversity of frfesh, healthy food at an affordable price.

Jason Erik Summers
October 10, 2011

Rick,<br><br>Though I agree with what you are saying about economic realities of small stores versus large stores in terms of labor practices and economies of scale, that's not really my concern. The core of my point is that it is not a priori clear that large stores are somehow good for the poor, unless one adopts a very particular understanding of who constitutes the poor.  I think you are talking about low-wage earners *above* the poverty line.  That is a legitimate segment of society to be concerned about because they are most affected by the economic red-shift in housing prices and the like.  However, I think it's important to distinguish the two groups.<br><br>You wrote, " you are also blaming the poor for their food related health issues because you claim they prefer to eat unhealthily. There may be an element of truth to that..."  But I am not extending blame on individuals in some simplistic sense.  I am citing the most recent studies on the topic which, quite frankly, are data and have not just an element of truth, but are in fact a fair picture of actually what happens.  The issue, as I said, is that "the factors that drive choices are much more complex, cognitively, socially, and economically."  Availability (i.e., supply) is not the only, or even the primary, factor.  For example, of the folks I know living at those income levels, almost none of them have had healthy food choices normed by relatives, so they lack basic skills and knowledge.  Also, because of the constant need to balance competing interests with limited resources, they face "decision fatigue," which undermines choice making at all levels.  Therefore, to address these problems, multidimensional solutions are required.  <br><br>Because folks earning very low incomes do not have full-time jobs, they have flexibility to make economic choices that people working 40-60 hour weeks do not.  They can, just as I once did, trade time for money and radically lower food costs; perhaps achieving a better standard of living in some respects than full-time minimum-wage workers.  In doing so, they are only sometimes best served by large stores.  This holds whether or not they have federal food aid (SNAP, which kicks in at below about $28k for a family of four).  However, few have these skills and decision fatigue makes it more difficult to achieve.<br><br>In any case, I think it is a sentiment of many that the returns of hard work over long hours are not worthwhile, particularly in certain wage brackets.  That is partly an illusion.  There are other unique and unpleasant disadvantages of poverty that have nothing to do with income.  While those on public assistance have, in some cases, more disposable income than those working in low-wage jobs because of various federal-aid programs, they and their children have significant barriers in the form of bad schools, difficulty in getting jobs, and the like.<br><br>js

Nick Connell
October 11, 2011

Also amoral corporate behemoths sometimes get tax breaks to develop in a certain city and state, for say 10, 20 or 30 years. Often, these corporations have uprooted when it came time for them to pay taxes, to give to the community that gave to them.

Billwald
November 30, 2011

Don't most neighborhood grocery stores make their profit on beer and cigarettes?

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