Monday, January 11, 2010

Naive environmental blogging

All this talk about plastic grocery bags has me thinking once again about the issue. I'm coming around overall to the idea of totes, not just generally but personally - I mostly use them for groceries now, and still have quite the backlog of plastic ones. But if the plastic bags were to disappear entirely, I'd probably waste more plastic, since I sort of have to take the non-recycling (i.e. food) trash out daily (to avoid pests/bad smells in my studio apt), and store-bought bags would likely be more than necessary for the job. But it's not about me! It's about The American Consumer, who's throwing out plastic bags just for the heck of it, perhaps even buying plastic bags for the express purpose of doing so. Whatever it is, I'd prefer a 'refund' for bringing your own bag (as at Whole Foods) to a 'tax' on not doing so, even if the amounts add up to the same.

One thing I'm struck by is that if we're talking about pollution as it relates to grocery shopping, there's a far more visible angle, if not in Manhattan: cars. A switch from driving to walking would certainly be more difficult to institute than tossing a rolled up tote in one's purse, but if obesity's also an issue, two birds and all that.

Confession: I secretly envy people who do their grocery shopping by car. Because of this, I must condemn driving to the store. It helps me remember the upside of all this shlepping.

My (limited) sense of why people drive to the store is that it can be about living ten miles from the nearest one, without decent public transportation between, but that often enough, it's a matter of convenience. Not only does it speed up each trip, but it means, I would think, being able to buy enough for the week in one go, depending the size of your household. That, and driving gives you more choice in where you shop. There might be a supermarket within walking distance, but not a cheap/expensive/hippie one, and that's the one you want. When I lived next to the Park Slope Food Co-op, I'd always see people loading their nicely non-plastic-bagged groceries into their cars. The Co-op takes pride in its clientele extending beyond Park Slope yuppies ("Our members come from all over Brooklyn as well as the rest of New York - some even come from out of state!"), but what this adds up to is a whole lot of driving to the grocery store. Some are no doubt driving from areas without good grocery options, but all? Is The Cause worth the driving?

In other words, there's a spectrum of how necessary it is for people in different situations to drive to get groceries. So before anyone gets all, 'But you live in New York, you know nothing about how people shop elsewhere,' allow me to point out that I admitted as much in the paragraph above. A spectrum. If those who could shop locally began doing so, this would (would it? am I making this up?) potentially matter more than the plastic-bag issue. (Not that it's either-or, but the smug legions placing canvas totes into their minivans in front of the Co-op keep coming to mind.) And... once people began frequenting stores near them, those stores would improve,* and perhaps new ones would open. And we'd all get our exercise in. Yay! Of course, this would also mean distribution to stores would be less efficient - local or not, stuff's got to be getting trucked in from somewhere. In other words, I really don't know what I'm talking about, but if I have to carry and carry and carry some more, surely we must all.

*This is a variant of my argument, years ago, that if UChicago stopped forcing students in dorms to have meal plans, or perhaps eliminated dining halls altogether, everyone would have to shop at the then-lousy supermarket, thus improving the supermarket, and thus teaching students some Basic Life Skills (budgeting, cooking, shopping efficiently) that the dining hall system is designed to protect the undergrads from acquiring.


PG said...

"And... once people began frequenting stores near them, those stores would improve"

This seems contrary to the sort of arguments usually propounded by libertarians/conservatives on subjects like school vouchers: I've never before heard that if one is constrained to a few options, those options are therefore likely to improve. The standard market argument is that the threat of people's not patronizing your entity (whether school or supermarket) is what induces you to do better.

By what mechanism do you envision that people's feeling obliged to shop locally would improve the local stores? At the moment, the local stores do have to compete with the Co-op, and it's practically an article of faith among Americans that greater competition = greater quality/ lower prices. Why are supermarkets an exception?

PG said...

Also, I don't know where the Co-op minivan folks live, but it is nearly impossible in some parts of the country to get even to a nearby retailer without getting into a car. When I lived in Northern Virginia, I was only a mile from my office, but I couldn't walk or bike to work because there was no sidewalk and the Beltway exits were between my apartment and the office. On the upside, there *was* a sidewalk between my apartment and a Whole Foods (and if I was willing to make a risky dash across the road or walk an additional half mile to a traffic light, a Trader Joe's as well), so I did some light shopping at those places. My roommate dispproved heartily of buying at upscale grocery stores, so our staples were all bought at the Giant that was not reachable by sidewalk.

Phoebe said...


If there was ever a post where I was well prepared to be shown wrong, this is the one. You make a good point about the lack of sidewalks in many areas. I have a tendency to kind of ignore the non-walkability of everywhere I go, but this is neither a safe option nor one that could encourage as a universal answer to this question. Anyway, as I hoped was clear in the post, I'm referring to those who could walk (or bike, although that's tough with lots of groceries) but don't. Not to people who truly need a car to feed themselves.

In terms of how grocery stores would improve... In the Chicago case, it was a bit particular - the main supermarket, which had many of the qualities (pricey rotten produce, much?) associated with inner-city food options, was aimed, it seemed, at poorer locals - profs and such could drive to decent supermarkets, many students would eat in dining halls. Students at UChicago being either the children of yuppies or aspiring yuppies, but unlike the profs and other neighborhood yuppie adults, typically without cars, student shoppers could potentially have turned the place into a yuppie supermarket. Not necessarily all-out Whole Foods, but better produce for less. (I believe there is now a yuppie supermarket in Hyde Park, but haven't really been following this.)

In the more general case, part of what I meant by 'improve' is that small, local stores would get a bit bigger and more ambitious/general. Meaning, while someone might now live near a shop that's just, say, cheeses and cold cuts, but have to go further to buy bread and vegetables, the nearby store could expand to sell more items. Also, I'm not imagining that the further-away stores would disappear, just that people would start seeing non-driving as an option with a lot going for it.

PG said...

I guess I just don't understand the mechanism by which a store will improve due to an influx of new customers (in your UChicago example, effectively captive customers due to the closing of the dining halls and students' lack of cars).

At least at the schools I've attended, the alternatives to the dining halls had to be a better option in order to attract student dollars. (I'm speaking of schools where dining plans were not mandatory; students could decide whether to purchase one, and for how many meals or for a set dollar amount that could be expended not only at the all-you-can-eat buffets of the dining halls, but also in on-campus cafes that had individually priced goods.)

If the UChicago dining halls close altogether, students are, just like the townies, stuck with the groceries in the area. I suppose the students' greater disposable income might attract an even higher-priced grocery than the ones already present, but it's unlikely to stock better produce; from what I saw of students' use of groceries in college, the ready-made food options are the most utilized.

Phoebe said...


You could be right, and your knowledge of economics no doubt exceeds mine by an amount I couldn't even articulate mine is so hopeless, so let's say you're right. Somehow I imagined demand would produce supply, and that I wasn't the only student interested in fresh produce. (Perhaps now, with the real-food trend, there's been some change in undergrad eating habits, in some places. Or, perhaps not.) Basically, I wanted there to be a better supermarket, desperately, but ended up taking the bus to Whole Foods (and attempting to combine this with a day downtown) whenever it was one inedible vegetable too many.

PG said...


But if the demand you envision is for good quality ingredients at reasonable prices, that presumably already exists to the extent that it will: students who want to make meals and have the facilities to do so will reject the dining halls' food in favor of going to a grocery store. I don't understand how removing the dining hall option from the students who *don't* want to be flung on their own resources will improve the ingredient supply and prices at the groceries; as I said, it just seems like those students will increase their consumption of fast food/ restaurants and prepared foods that can be nuked in the microwave stacked on the minifridge.

(Or do they make you have all your meals in the dining hall for all 4 years at Chicago? If so, I can add another pat on my own back for having refused their admission offer.)

I wouldn't underestimate the facilities problem. My husband wanted to borrow as little as possible for law school, so he spent all three years in an undergraduate dorm. He shared a kitchen with several teenage males who had dubious hygiene practices and he therefore rarely cooked, despite having the skills to do so and a few supermarkets in easy walking distance. I didn't try to cook much in college, but the students in my residence hall who did had regular pitched battles over the cleanliness of the kitchen, who left what in the fridge, etc. Dorm life is not conducive to developing adult skills in cooking any more than twin-size beds are conducive to developing other adult skills.

Phoebe said...


You're right, but I thought I'd already conceded I'd been wrong about the supermarket-and-dorm, supermarket-and-student-demand thing. I'm going to exit this thread before I reveal myself to be wrong about still more.