06 March 2010

The Grocery Dilemma

sausages at the market

North America is big. Really big. You may think it's a long way down to the grocery store, and in general, it is. And this is the source of many problems.

First, when the grocery store is far away, you're likely to go less often. This has two consequences: you'll buy more food and less of it fresh. Buying more food generally leads to buying things you won't end up using (it's hard to always plan perfectly just what you'll need a week or more in advance) and fresh food tends to be the healthiest. So already, you're set up to be less healthy and to waste food.

Next, for whatever reason it originally started, stores in North America carrry enormous bulk sizes of things. The smaller quantities are then priced unnattractively, so that it seems like a financially sensible choice to buy the large size. This makes your groceries heavy and since your grocery store is far away, it's not feasible to walk. So you're spending more money because you're buying more food at a time and you're driving instead of walking, which is worse for both you and the environment (and costs you even more money when you consider all the tangential costs of cars).

Finally, because you've had to buy lots of food, in large quantities, you need a larger space to store all that stuff. So you're spending more on your home or apartment.

In contrast, consider if your grocery store was 5 minutes walk away. It would be more hassle to drive there and find parking than to just walk over. Then you'd have to buy less stuff because you'd need to carry it home, but if you're that close to the grocery store, you can go every couple of days. So suddenly, you can buy fresh food every couple days and be more accurate in planning what you'll use and get some exercise too. I was lucky enough in Montreal to be in this situation. There were small grocery stores scattered all over my neighbourhood, so I could easily walk to the store every few days. The one piece that still caused a problem, though, was the way small quantities of pantry items tended to be overpriced compared to the bulk sizes.

fresh scones

Something that annoyed me initially in Amsterdam was the lack of bulk sizes. I do a lot of home baking and go through flour pretty quickly. I was used to buying 10 kg bags. The bags of flour here are 1kg. However, the key difference I've realised is that I'm not paying a markup for the small package. It's about 0.58 € (includes taxes) and while I can't pop into a Canadian grocery store at the moment to check, I can just about guarantee that a 1kg bag of flour will cost more than $0.80! Once you lose the pricing incentive to buy the large size, it suddenly becomes clear that bulk purchasing is really not advantageous. It means you have more money tied up in "stuff" that you don't really need yet, for some things it means they won't be as fresh when you get to using them (or might even be spoiled if you get bugs or mice), and it means you need space to store all your bulk stuff. If you're walking home with groceries, it's also much nicer to be carrying 1kg at a time rather than 10kg!

I think many of our current problems in North America could be solved by returning to an urban model where it was convenient to walk to stores (and if we got over the obsession with bulk and "supersize" options). It would be better for our health, our pocketbooks, and for the environment. But why won't it happen anytime soon? Because it means more overhead costs for the corporations and thus smaller profit margins. Shopping at farmer's markets and smaller shops is great if you have that option. But what can people stuck with a distant, monolithic grocery store as their only option do?

I don't have the solution other than to say that it presumably works in Europe, so why not in North America?


Susan M, Fibre Arts said... Best Blogger Tips

Interesting and thoughtful comment on grocery shopping. I like buying food and supplies in large size or multiples because then I don't have to do that chore again for a week or more. I especially don't mind stocking up on dry goods.

Having said that, I like your point that we need to devote space to this food hoard and who needs that hassle?

And walking or cycling to shop has become a major attraction for me. Except when it's time to buy flour.

Stephen J. Walters said... Best Blogger Tips

I think you are completely correct about grocery shopping, but more importantly, I think you are hitting on a big point here and hitting the nail on the head, but only in a too-limited scope.

The problem isn't just with groceries, but that is certainly important. The problem, as I see it, is suburbanism in general.

It is counterproductive to require me to drive at *all* to work. If I must fire up my ridiculously-expensive, CO2-producing monster to get to my daily grind, I'm acting anti-socially to begin with.

The way I see it, the things I do every day are the most important. Going to work, eating food (as you say, correctly), hanging out with friends at the pub, having some activity (movie theater? bowling alley?), well, all of these are important things that we need to be within walking distance.


New Urbanism is the movement you are looking for.

Quite fortunately, though only based on luck, I work exactly 29 steps from where I live, and my grocery store is a five-minute walk. (I live in Yellowknife, so it's not really possible to extrapolate this to anywhere else--I'm just lucky.)

This is what we should be pushing on city planners. This is what we should be encouraging our friends and family to pursue: living close to work, living in neighbourhoods planned around *walking* instead of driving, really, planned around *living* instead of *leaving*.

Most suburban places I know of, like where I grew up, were planned around the idea that the place I live in is different and far away from the place I work, the place I shop, the place I go for recreation. What we need isn't nearby grocery stores, what we need is a complete re-think of the planning of neighbourhoods and cities.

New Urbanism encourages this.

Unfortunately, as you correctly note, this is not the most profitable idea. Until we become a society whose main motive is not the enrichment of the holders of capital and rather the enrichment of the lives of each and every one of our citizens, I feel very much like this is a hopeless, though extremely desirable, dream.

Stephen J. Walters

Allison said... Best Blogger Tips

Hi Stephen

Thanks for the great comment and link! I am aware that the grocery store issue is really part of the larger issue of urban model (which I alluded to a bit in my post). Sometimes a concrete, specific example makes it easier to see how it impacts us personally and daily. Also, it was the issue of bulk sizes and pricing that I was recently examining why I was feeling annoyed about and realised there was no reason to here. It turned into something larger once I started writing about it. Food is so central to our lives and shows how out of touch with our basic needs we are. For example, unwholesome "convenience" food instead of healthy, homemade meals show a real priority problem, but that's a whole other post.

Originally, when North America was settled by Europeans, increased wealth directly correlated with a better standard of life. However, we failed to re-evaluate that assumption over time, and eventually, optimizing for wealth became detrimental to health, happiness, community, etc.