Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.


The Road Less Traveled: Driving, Retail, and Energy Costs

Not that it’s anything new, but the New York Times has an article about how rising gas prices are affecting rural populations the most. From the article:

Mr. Clark and members of his work crew spoke of the big and little changes that higher gas prices have brought. The extra dollars spent at the pump mean electric bills are going unpaid and macaroni is replacing meat at supper. Donations to church are being put off, and video rentals are now unaffordable.

Cleveland Whiteside, who works with Mr. Clark and used to commute 30 miles a day, said his Jeep Cherokee was repossessed last month, because “I paid so much for gas to get to work I couldn’t pay my payments anymore.” His employer, Larry Clanton, has lent him a pickup truck so he can get to work.

Signs of pain and adaptation because of the cost of gas are everywhere. Local fried chicken restaurants are closing because people are eating out less. At the hardware store here, sales have plummeted to $30 a day from $250 a day a month ago.

I realize that this is only tangentially related to food policy, but it ties into other policy arrangements that have had an impact on the way we order our lives in the U.S., and relates to some of the same issues as food production and retail. Specifically, the rise of the strip mall and commuter culture. Author and researcher Stacey Mitchell, in her book Big-Box Swindle, notes that:

As corporate chains have come to dominate retauling, Americans are logging more road miles each year for shopping and errands…. It’s not that we’re taking more shopping trips, but rather that more of those trips are by automobile and the journeys are longer. As the chains build ever-bigger stores, each outlet depends on a greater number of households spread over a wider geographic area. Thus the distance between home and store continues to grow….

Driving has become less about choice and more about necessity. In much of America, walking or taking public transit to the store is no longer an option. Most families have moved into suburban subdivisions that, by virtue of both zoning codes and convention, are strictly residential and lack the small neighborhood shops common in older communities. Not surprisingly, families that live in the suburbs rely much more on their cars than those who live in traditional neighborhoods….

Corporate chains have a strong preference for locations and store designs that encourage and even necessitate traveling by car…. [T]he [very] nature of the shopping experience necessitates driving. Picking up a few things after work every day — which is fast and easy if you have a few good small stores in the neighborhood — is not at all convenient if you have to navigate a superstore the size of a football field and then wait in line behind families buying a week’s worth of supplies.

What does any of this have to do with food law? As I have said, very little, except that the rise of this driving culture and the consumer tendencies it fosters have contributed strongly to the conditions we face today. As big-box retailers cause smaller, independent stores to go out of business, consumers purchase more and more of their goods at the big-box stores. Since big-box stores save administrative costs by having a single purchaser buy an entire category or subcategory of products for a region of stores, it is really unrealistic for big-box retailers to buy locally produced goods such as food, even if they wanted to. (To say nothing of the fact that, if they did, they would quickly drive local producers out of business due to the concessions they are able to demand.)

The system is able to perpetuate itself because most people own cars and think little of driving 20 miles to grocery-shop. Thanks to the rising price of gas, all of that is about to change.

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