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

The Power of Just-in-time Logistics, in the Palm of Your Hand

In today’s New York Times, David Pogue reviews a device called the Ikan which seems to be a combination supermarket scanner, list compiler, and web-based shopping service. It works like this: as you use your kitchen items, you can scan them into the Ikan device, which sits on your countertop. The Ikan complies a list of items, and you can add to the list by dictating items which don’t have a scannable label. The list is viewable online, and, once it’s complete, you can click “shop” or something, and Ikan will have the contents of your list delivered to your door. Reactions, as you might expect, are mixed:

Old-school homemakers may consider it a silly redundancy. How much more effort is it, they ask, to maintain a handwritten list? And isn’t going to the grocery store more than just a time drain? Isn’t it also a little outing, a small source of pride and accomplishment, an opportunity for social interaction?

Other people can’t believe the amount of time this system saves. You’ve just compressed a two-hour weekly errand into about 10 minutes. All you have to do is approve the illustrated, error-proof online shopping list, and then let somebody else battle the traffic, haul the bags and pay for the gas.

Before I get into the substantive merits or flaws of the Ikan, I should say that I rather suspect that this is a bad time to introduce a product like this one. With rising food, gas, and credit prices, I have trouble imagining that this sort of gadget / service is high on many people’s purchasing list.

I should think that, if the Ikan were able to overcome that setback, though, and reach a certain customer density, it could realize some efficiencies which are friendly to the ecology and the human environment. Specifically, I would suspect that one delivery van bringing groceries to several houses in a neighborhood produces less congestion, less noise pollution, less wear and tear on roads, and less gasoline per pound of merchandise than each of those households doing their own shopping. I would consider that to be a good thing.

On the other hand, it seems to me that the Ikan service relies on a number of presuppositions which are difficult to reconcile with ethical eating / locavorism. For instance:

  • Food ordinarily has a label on it so that machines can identify it more easily.
  • Food is ordinarily available in the same condition, all year long regardless of season.
  • Food is ordinarily fungible.
  • Choosing one’s own food is an activity that one’s surrogate can do just as easily and just as well as oneself.

The presuppositions I’ve identified here are as good an example as any of the differences between arguing against the excesses and arguing against the ground-state. It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are positives to sending someone else to the supermarket for you. For one thing, your time is probably worth more than it would cost to pay someone else. For another, shopping at the supermarket is, I suspect, very few people’s idea of a pleasant experience: you have to deal with traffic getting there and parking once you’re there, and shopping-carriage traffic the whole time you are shopping; the lighting and the atmosphere are rarely inviting; the food is practically the same week after week — it never comes into season, it never gets ripe, it never smells like food. Doing a week’s worth of grocery shopping at the supermarket is pretty strictly a utilitarian ordeal, and as such, it is something one would outsource if one could.

I don’t mean to pick on the Ikan here: I simply thought it was a way to illuminate how institutions perpetuate themselves and the values that give them rise. If shopping at the supermarket has become unpleasant, then you can hire a stranger to shop at the supermarket for you. Instead of asking why shopping for food is so joyless, you can simply pay someone else to spend that joyless time for you. But you can only do this if food is fungible — one of the presuppositions that underlies our whole production and distribution system. You can only do this if a tomato is a tomato is a tomato — red, watery, with a thick skin to protect from bruising during transport, mealy of flesh and without discernible odor. If food is not fungible; if, say, a tomato from a local farm is not the same as a tomato of equivalent weight trucked across the country from California, then you can no more send somebody to the supermarket for you than you can go to the supermarket for yourself.

The system of food production and distribution we have in the U.S., which gives rise to institutions such as supermarkets and to their logical extensions like the Ikan, is responsible for two miracles. The first miracle is the one we all hear about: the miracle that, (present life-threatening food-borne illnesses aside,) you can go to the supermarket and buy a tomato any time you like, no matter where you are. This is a not-inconsiderable feat, and it is rightly emphasized, if a bit too often and too loudly, by the Old Guard of U.S. food and politics.

To my mind, however, the second miracle — the one that is almost never considered — is even more amazing. You can go to the supermarket and buy a tomato any time you want, but you will never want to.


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