Doubts About Public Groceries

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In our world, grocery stores are run mostly by the market, with a few exceptions of subsidies and regulations, while schools are run mostly by the government. Imagine an alternate world of market education and government groceries...


Doubts About Public Groceries

by Froma Nutherwurld, July 1999

I've been an ardent supporter of public groceries my whole life. I attended the recent conference of the Separation of Grocery and State Alliance not because I wanted to, but because I missed an editor's meeting and was "volunteered" for the job in absentia. Great, I thought, I get to report on the quacks and nut-cases. Get rid of the public grocery stores -- yea, right. And then I'll saddle up my winged pig and fly over the moon.

Needless to say, I expected to hear nothing but shrill hysteria and nonsense. And I did hear some of that. But I also heard a few arguments I couldn't immediately dismiss. Now, two weeks later, I'm still trying to come up with solid answers to the some of the points raised at the conference. I am by no means ready to support the abolition of the public grocery stores, but I'm ready to admit that the debate deserves a wider audience.

My first reaction, of course, was to state the obvious, that public groceries are the foundations of our democratic society. There is nothing more basic to human well-being than nutrition. It is in society's vital interests to make sure that quality groceries are available to everyone, regardless of socio-economic status. If we of different religions, races, and ethnicities can't even buy groceries together in public stores, how can we hope to cooperate in other areas of life?

The supporters of private grocery stores anticipated such questions. First, they counter, just because grocery stores are private, doesn't mean they'll be segregated. Most people in society want diversity and will shop at grocery stores that cater to it. Sure, some ethnic or ideological groups will choose to buy groceries separately. But is that so bad? Our country was founded on voluntary associations, not forced integration, argue private grocery advocates. I have a big problem with the idea of segregated grocery stores, but it does seem reasonable to expect that most grocery stores would continue to be fully integrated.

Supporters of private groceries also argue that public groceries were hardly the foundation of our country. Indeed, none of the signers of the Declaration bought groceries at public stores. They all seemed to develop their pro-freedom views absent the enlightened national planning of public groceries. Private grocery advocates claim that public grocery stores were broadly enforced in the mid-1800s as a way of homogenizing new immigrants.

What about the poor? If the rich are permitted to buy groceries wherever they choose, won't this result in a class system? Surely we need to strengthen public groceries for everyone, not permit the wealthy to deplete the resources of the public stores. The poor are less able to move to different stores. They don't have the transportation or other means of the rich. Besides, let's face it: the working poor simply don't have the time or energy to monitor the quality of groceries for themselves or their children.

Advocates of private groceries suggest that this is a dehumanized view of the poor. Poor people aren't stupid, especially where the welfare of their own family is concerned. Probably most grocery stores would cater to both the wealthy and the poor. Before the era of public groceries, stores issued discount coupons as a way of helping the poor through rational price discrimination. Plus, shouldn't it be the responsibility of churches and private charity organizations to subsidize the groceries of the poor? The supporters of private groceries claim that practically everyone had access to quality grocery products before public grocery stores. Even if some stores cater only to the wealthy, perhaps the poor will be better off, too.

In a sense, these arguments are difficult to believe. I'm skeptical that private charities could provide assistance to everyone who needed extra help. The scenarios are speculative; we have no guarantee that things will work out as hoped. That said, I find these sorts of claims marginally plausible. Perhaps more historical research and a few policy experiments today could shed light on whether private grocery stores will be able to serve people of all economic stations.

But perhaps prices will be driven down with a private system of grocery stores, as the free market advocates suggest. This has an initial plausibility to it: automobiles, computers, and educational services have continually dropped in price while climbing in quality. However, I find some of the more extreme claims unrealistic: Marsha Furst of the Alliance claimed that groceries might drop to as little as 20% of the current costs. Bananas, for instance, might cost as little as $0.89 per pound. While such drastic decreases in price are hard to believe, even a modest reduction, to say $3.50 per pound for bananas, would go a long way toward helping the poor cope with a private system.

Not only would prices decrease, market advocates say, but service would increase as well. Why is it that public groceries are constantly plagued by public protests and the political wranglings of groups such as the National Grocery Association? Sure, the public is able to vote on grocery funding and on local Grocery Board members. But is this a good substitute for the market? After all, free market industries like computers and education seem to get by just fine without constant voter activism, publicity drives, and legislative battles. Can groceries also function in the market system, or do the unique qualities of groceries make them unsuited to market control?

Private grocery advocates argue that, just because the rest of the world funds public grocery stores, doesn't mean the United States has to follow suit. Indeed, in other countries public grocery stores were part of the socialistic agendas that also put the government in charge of education and technology, industries which thrive on the market in America. Some at the conference even objected to using the term "public grocery store," because private stores would be equally open to the public. I was counseled to instead use the term "government grocery store" to indicate the true nature of the institution. However, the terminology is already set, so I'll stick with it, while paying mind to the general point.

To some at the conference, the movement toward private grocery stores represents nothing less than intellectual freedom. The Organicists believe that eating what they see as today's over-processed, high-chemical, low-nutrient food is unhealthy and even immoral. Indeed, many Organicists refuse to wait for the abolition of public groceries. More and more, they are switching to private grocery stores to purchase their food. The private grocery market is still relatively small, but it has grown five-fold in the past decade. Of course, the Organicists still have to pay property and income taxes to subsidize the public grocery stores. In effect, they must pay double, once for the public groceries they don't eat, and once for the private groceries. They argue that this is terribly unfair, and that it violates their freedom of conscience. In effect, they are forced to pay for food which they honestly believe harms people. While I don't agree with the Organicists' principles, they do make a good point about the fundamental lack of fairness.

I'm not ready to abandon our public grocery stores just yet. I remain hopeful that reforms of the public grocery stores can increase the quality of food for everyone. However, as the free marketers and Organicists increase in numbers, the move to private groceries may seem more tenable.

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