Sunday, December 28, 2014

Give us this Day our Daily Bread - Food Accessibility in America

Food Accessibility in America used to be the same as in Europe... the idea of grocery stores in every neighborhood serving the community. It was common here in the US before big box stores and urban sprawl.  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the age of the independent mom-and-pop stores appeared widely and conveniently. As residents moved into neighborhoods segregated by class and ethnicity and into the suburbs created by the new means of transportation, small family-run stores sprang up to meet their needs. These new groceries, meat markets, vegetable stands, and bakeries typically reflected the ethnic demographics of the neighborhood—  Polish neighborhoods were served by Polish grocers, Jewish neighborhoods by Jewish grocers. Stores often carried ethnic foods that were hard to find elsewhere and conducted business in the native language of their customers. Workers followed this pattern as well. The bakers' union had separate locals for it German, Bohemian, Scandinavian, Polish, and English members, while the meat cutters had separate German, Bohemian, Jewish, and African American locals.
Thousands of small neighborhood stores dotted Chicago's urban landscape until the 1950s. Families rarely owned any sort of refrigeration besides an icebox, so housewives shopped for food almost daily. This put a premium on convenience; the store had to be within walking distance of home. By 1914, some 7,400 groceries, 1,800 meat markets, and several hundred fruit and vegetable stands served the city. Except for those stores located where streetcar lines crossed, proprietors could expect only a few hundred regular customers. To protect themselves from the fierce competition that characterized their industry, Chicago's retail food store owners formed many associations over the years. Since the industry was notorious for its long hours, these associations often agitated for early closing and Sunday closing rules. As early as 1855, retailers formed an Early Closing Association to give themselves time off in the evening. The Chicago Grocer and Butcher Clerks Protective Association joined with the Retail Grocers and Butchers Association in 1900 to pressure employers who refused to join the Sunday closing crusade, but their successes were short-lived until union contracts introduced in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s effectively set the hours of operation for the industry. The rise of chain store companies in the years after World War I seriously challenged the dominance of the independent grocers.
I think it is sad that we have fewer local grocery stores and more big box stores. It is more difficult to get to food because of this lack of local grocery stores in America's neighborhoods. While I lived in Europe, I treated the local stores, there were many in my block, as my additional storage: my extended pantry, my extra fridge space. In fact, I lived without a refrigerator for one year and never missed it. Why/How? Because, I was able to buy fresh daily, come home, cook it and eat it.  I know that in many of America's cities such local stores still exist but it becomes more and more difficult for smaller entrepreneurs to remain in business and especially to keep up with inflation and property taxes and insurances deemed necessary in this litigation culture. Costs for the little guy are passed down directly to the customer; whereas, with big box stores, such costs are easily managed and or absorbed in the greater nationwide infrastructure.
 What will be the future of food accessibility in America? Will we see a restoration of small local grocery stores? Will big box stores create smaller stores located within neighborhoods? Will residential neighborhoods be able to communally raise/grow their own food as in collective agro-biz? I would like to have chickens and a cow in my large back yard for milk and eggs and to share any abundance. Shouldn't we as individuals be able to do that? Point being, with the many discussions today about food deserts, why can't individuals be more proactive in providing food for themselves and others in their communities? If they cannot be proactive, then the bigger question is why not?
Give us this day our daily bread...

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