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


“Luxury Comfort Food” is an Oxymoron
24 June 2008, 11:59 pm
Filed under: consumerism, Economics of Eating

Too right.

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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.



Drive-By Libertarian v. Straw-Man Foodie

Reason Magazine issues a salvo in the fast-food restaurant labeling discussion, arguing that in our haste to regulate how much fat we eat, consumer protection advocates and supporters of mandatory nutrition information labeling have unduly singled out fast food operations and have forgotten that wretched excess in the consumption of saturated fats is not limited to the drive-thru window. Money quote:

Fast food makes such a savory scapegoat for our perpetual girth control failures that it’s easy to forget we eat less than 20 percent of our meals at the Golden Arches and its ilk. It’s also easy to forget that before America fell in love with cheap, convenient, standardized junk food, it loved cheap, convenient, independently deep-fried junk food.

While these statements may be true as far as they go, it seems to me that the author is playing fast and loose with the various argumenta ad antiquitatem, ad populum, ad hominem, and the old red herring.

To address each of these in turn: first, it may be true that U.S. citizens have been susceptible to overconsumption of the sorts of artery-clogging fare that typify the fast-food menu since long before the invention of the fast-food restaurant, but even if this proposition is true, it does not follow that our tendency to overeat is ordinary or good simply because it preceded the existence of some restaurants subject to regulation.

Second, nobody is arguing that at the current prices, demand for fast-food and fast-food-type food is high. If fast-food-type food weren’t popular, it wouldn’t be a major contributor to U.S. obesity, would it? Again, the fact that lots of people tend to eat fast-food-type food says little, if anything, about whether that tendency is something that we should address with regulation.

Thirdly, the author seems to be saying that because people overeat at independently-owned restaurants that sell, e.g., massive burgers as well as at chain restaurants that sell massive burgers, requiring chains to meet a standard that independent shops may avoid is hypocritical populism. This argument cannot be valid unless chain shops are no better off than independent shops at meeting the standard, and this is not the case for two reasons. 1) The franchisor (because let’s face it, in general we’re talking about franchises here) is more likely than the independent shop already to have access to information about portioning and nutrition. 2) the franchisor is able to design a single sign for use in multiple shops, thereby spreading the large costs of compliance over a wider population than the independent shop.

That is, if you’re Burger King corporate, when you determine the nutritional values of the Whopper and design a sign containing those values, you incur a single cost that brings all of your stores into compliance, but if you’re Ray’s Burger Joint, when you determine the nutritional value of the Ray’s Slider, and design a sign containing that information, you incur a cost that brings only one store into compliance. This cost will have to be replicated for every independent shop in the city. Thus it is not the case that failing to go after independent shops selling fast-food-type food necessarily stems from a desire on the part of the legislator to be seen as tough on big business and a friend of the little guy. It may simply be the case that these standards, although necessary, are more onerous on the independent diner than they are on the chain restaurant, and therefore the requirement of fifteen stores or more within the city constitutes a hardship exemption for smaller businesses.

Finally, all of these objections are another instance of Drive-by Libertarianism and how it obscures the issues. U.S. citizens ate too much beef in greasy-spoon diners in the 1950s for the same reason we eat too much beef in fast-food restaurants now, and it’s a reason that I should expect Libertarians to be more mindful of — government distortion of the market via subsidies.

It is fair to say that Federal Farm subsidies are really only half the problem, and that the other half is that we didn’t develop a firmly-entrenched food culture here in the U.S. prior to the distortions created by the farm subsidies. We didn’t then, and still don’t, have a sense of the difference between “food” and a “meal,” in the way that, for instance, the French do. It is further well-established that proteins and saturated fats and sugars are historically rare in the human diet, meaning that a feast-or-famine mechanism naturally kicks in when high-fat, high-protein foods are present. Unfortunately, the farm bill has made it those foods cheap and omnipresent.

Among my favorite statements about the law and justice is the following, by G.K. Chesterton:
“When you break the big laws, you do not get liberty. You do not even get anarchy. You get the small laws.” It seems to me that when you badly and unintelligently distort the pressures of a market, you get regulation, and the regulation isn’t the problem.



Opting Out

Guest-Blogger Erin over at Crunchy Con raises an interesting point that is tangential to the notion that feminism and locavorism are in tension. For readers who are not familiar with “Crunchy Con” it is a blog ordinarily written by Rod Dreher, who wrote a book called Crunchy Conservatives, identifying a hitherto ignored part of the political spectrum: conservative Republicans who, disgusted with the disposable commercialism and spiritual bankruptcy of the present consumer-capitalist system, have taken it upon themselves to “opt out” by, e.g., homeschooling their children; repairing rather than replacing their clothes; growing their own food or even just cooking from scratch; getting rid of the television, and so on.

Erin identifies a social support network that has arisen among homeschooling moms, in which they are able to meet and share resources and techniques and success stories and give one another material and emotional support, the same is not true of the fathers who remain at work.

Some men find it necessary to keep the information that their wives “don’t work” very private, because some of them have learned to their detriment that they will face attitudes ranging from derision to open contempt and hostility from their co-workers who have made different choices. Add to this information the fact that your wife is homeschooling your children, and you might as well show up for work in Amish attire, as out-of-touch and otherworldly as your choices will seem, to many, to be. Even if a man is lucky enough to work in an environment where his colleagues are relatively laissez-faire about his family’s choices, many of the socialization opportunities his co-workers engage in will be closed to him: for instance, though he may not particularly mind sports bars, the odds that he’s going to want to spend several hours in one after work when his priority is to spend time with his family is pretty low.

I thought that was interesting, and, particularly to the extent that “crunchy con” values intersect with locavore values (probably not a perfect intersection, but certainly not negligible) I think Erin’s comments illustrate that the greater and more important tension may not be between feminism and locavorism but between work and home.

Industrial agriculture and fast food enable both parents to work outside the home, yes, but it increasingly seems as if the economy in which industrial agriculture and fast food are possible requires both parents to work outside the home. Which requires in turn that we overproduce and overprocess our food.

In another post, Erin writes about the recent phenomenon of the ready-made Thanksgiving dinner as an indicator of misplaced values, work over home particularly. If we’re not working to enable ourselves to make dinner for our families and the ones we love, on Thanksgiving of all days, then why are we working at all? Is the job really its own reward? Has it made you a stranger in your own kitchen?

I can understand, and I certainly don’t judge, people who buy Thanksgiving dinner whole because they have emergencies and can’t spare the time. But if your emergency is not being able to afford not to work on Thanksgiving, then something is terribly wrong: our economy is overshadowing your humanity.

Moreover, the problem creates a feedback loop: the more people have to work on Thanksgiving, the more demand there is for provision of goods and services on the actual day of Thanksgiving. The more demand, the more workers are expected to work on Thanksgiving.

I was also struck by a quote from Rod’s book: “Every one of us can refuse, at some level, to participate in the system that makes us materially rich but impoverishes us spiritually, morally, and aesthetically. We cannot change society, at least not overnight, but we can change ourselves and our families.”

And on that note, I hope that you are able to make time for your family, that you travel safely and can leave your day-to-day pressures behind. I hope, instead of shopping on Friday, that you read a book to yourself, or to a child to whom you are related. I hope you are well. Happy Thanksgiving.



Materialism and Happiness
14 November 2007, 11:43 pm
Filed under: consumerism, Economics of Eating, Ethics of Eating, Wal-Martization

Not technically food related at all, but I suspect many readers will find interesting this discussion of the inverse relationship between happiness and materialism. Money quote:

Most of us want more income so we can consume more. Yet as societies become richer, they do not become happier. In fact, the First World has more depression, more alcoholism and more crime than fifty years ago. This paradox is true of Britain, the United States, continental Europe and Japan.

Yes, it’s probably more complicated than that, but I thought this was an interesting example of the same sort of attitude I attributed to my mother this weekend.