In the U.K., small local shops are being replaced by big-box supermarkets. A widespread argument for this conversion is that consumers get more choice. Peter Wilby wrote in the Guardian 3 May 2011 about why that’s not good enough:
Even the “good for consumers” defence of the big stores requires scrutiny. Supermarkets may offer mangoes and kiwi fruit as a blessed relief to generations who recall the surly greengrocer grunting “no demand for it” when asked for anything out of the ordinary. But the option to buy locally grown produce is increasingly closed off; many varieties of English fruit disappeared long ago. Supermarkets stock food not for its taste, but for its longevity and appearance. Conventional economists count numbers, assuming that a huge increase in toilet roll colours represents an unqualified gain to the consumer. They neglect more subtle dimensions of choice.He then cites U.S. research that shows local stores promote the local economy. Are we just consumers? Maybe we do other things than just buy stuff? Especially, do we do other things together?
The central issue, however, is whether “what the consumer wants” should close down the argument. What people want as consumers may not be what they want as householders, community members, producers, employees or entrepreneurs. The loss of small shops drains a locality’s economic and social capital. Money spent in independent retail outlets tends to stay in the community, providing work for local lawyers and accountants, plumbers and decorators, window cleaners and builders.
It also finds that, after the arrival of a big supermarket, participation in local charities, churches, campaign groups and even voting declines sharply. As Jane Jacobs argued in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1960), communities are created by myriad small daily encounters: getting cooking tips from the greengrocer, hearing about a job from the butcher, recommending a good plumber at the bakery, exchanging opinions in the pub.So one way to rebuild that community would be to hold a local event for local producers and vendors where local people could talk to each other. Like Downtown Valdosta Farm Days, starting this Saturday, 7 May 2011. As Bill McKibben pointed out:
“The sum of such casual, public contact at the local level,” wrote Jacobs, “…is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust.” Supermarkets minimise human contact in the interests of efficiency and convenience, most recently by introducing self-service lanes for payment. As one critic put it, they “cut the threads that hold an engaged community together”.
Often a farmers’ market is the catalyst — not just because people find that they like local produce, but because they actually meet each other again. This is not sentiment talking; this is data. A team of sociologists recently followed shoppers around supermarkets and then farmers’ markets. You know the drill at the Stop’n‘Shop: you come in the automatic door, fall into a light fluorescent trance, visit the stations of the cross around the perimeter of the store, exit after a discussion of credit or debit, paper or plastic. But that’s not what happens at farmers’ markets. On average, the sociologists found, people were having ten times as many conversations per visit. They were starting to rebuild the withered network that we call a community. So it shouldn’t surprise us that farmers’ markets are the fastest-growing part of our food economy; they are simply the way that humans have always shopped, acquiring gossip and good cheer along with calories.
Local foods, local economy, local community.