Bringing grocery stores to rural areas and considering free markets

Declining populations in some rural areas means it is more difficult to sustain grocery stores:

Some states are trying to tackle their rural grocery gaps. Supporters of such efforts point to tax incentives and subsidies at various levels of government that have enabled superstores to service larger areas and squeeze out local independent grocers. Now, dollar stores are opening in rural regions and offering items at lower prices, posing direct competition to local groceries.

Critics see that development as a threat to public health, since dollar stores typically lack quality meat and fresh produce.

But every town and every store is different, making statewide solutions elusive. Some legislators say they are reluctant to intervene too heavily because the market should close the gaps…

In rural areas, the poor tend to live farther from supermarkets than residents with more resources. The median distance to the nearest food store for rural populations in 2015 was 3.11 miles, and a shade farther for rural households enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, according to a May 2019 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program.

Providing a range of social services and cultural services is an increasing issue, ranging from medical care to religious congregations to food.

While there are logistical issues in how to run, supply, and sustain organizations across such broad distances with limited participants, the political approach cited in this article is interesting. Should more conservative states provide government assistance for grocery stores? The article suggests there is some reluctance for state governments to step in. But, this might be exactly a good case where free markets simply cannot work well: there are not enough people in certain areas to generate profits or efficiencies. Plus, the federal government over the decades has helped rural areas, such as through rural electrification projects. Will state lawmakers refuse help just because of commitment to certain ideologies?

This situation also suggests Americans could think more about providing services in ways that do not have to generate profits. Instead, the services exist to serve the community. Think cooperatives. Think community-based organizations meant to help sustain each other rather than make a profit.

Grow fruits and vegetables in the front yard instead of a lawn

One journalist discusses alternatives to the grass lawn that dominates the front yard of suburban homes:

Every summer, I imagine a different landscape, one that I do not have to mow. My sunny front lawn would be a great place to grow a vegetable garden: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and maybe some chard. But if my dandelions raise eyebrows, imagine the reaction I would get to a raised garden bed just a few feet from the sidewalk…

Ms. Bordessa sees room for edible experimentation, even in the front yard. A clever homeowner could tuck food-bearing alternatives like basil, peppers, eggplant and blueberries into the flower beds without disrupting the neighborhood aesthetic. Grow a fruit tree and the neighbors might even come knocking for a free peach…

But this spring, I decided to plant more and mow less. A local landscaper who specializes in native plants stopped by my house to offer advice. When I suggested the possibility of a vegetable garden in the front, she steered me to the backyard instead, pointing to a narrow swath near the driveway that gets full light. And I could shrink the rest of the back lawn with native plants like sweet fern, sweetbells, witch hazel and silky dogwood that thrive without full sun. In the front, we could expand the existing flower bed and add new ones. She glanced at me and said, “Of course, you’d need to take care of all this.”…

That first crop was so tasty that each season the couple expanded their patch, planting beets, squash, cantaloupe, kohlrabi, chard and peppers. The plants filled the backyard and wrapped around the side of the house, generating enough produce to feed five food-insecure families in the area every week. Their ambitions grew with the crops. “If we’re going to do 10 plants, why not 20?” Ms. MacLagan said. “Why not the whole seed packet?”

Since the front lawn is part of the important display from the homeowners to the street, any effort to do something different than normal – grass and some bushes, flowers, and trees within reason – might catch attention. These suggestions about growing food in the front go even further as they alter the front lawn from a symbol of normalcy or class status and change the focus to production. Then, the conversation is not just about aesthetics or fitting in with surrounding lawns; it is about cultivating the land for a more practical rather than symbolic use.

I wonder how many comments or concerns are tied to different aspects of having a front yard garden:

1. Does it matter how much of the lawn is a garden? Is a small garden more acceptable compared to 50% or the full land?

2. Do the kind of fruit and vegetables plants/trees planted matter? Some might be more visible as food producers.

3. Is it better to have all garden plants or would including flowers and other non-producing plants help soften the shock of a garden?

Food delivery services and restaurants aiming for the unsaturated suburban markets

Skift Table suggests the suburbs are ripe for increased restaurant and food delivery activity:

Outside the urban cores, things get interesting. Earnest Research shows that in the rest of the U.S. market, it’s a head-to-head battle between DoorDash (31 percent market share) and Uber Eats (with 30 percent). In third place is Grubhub, coming in at 27 percent…

“Many suburban areas tend to have a larger number of chain restaurants than independent mom and pop restaurants, making it advantageous for Grubhub to offer takeout from these familiar chains to local residents who may not be accustomed to the idea of ordering delivery,” says Katie Norris, Senior Manager of Communications at GrubHub…

But not all restaurants need to be located on Main & Main to succeed, thanks to the ever-expanding reach of digital marketing and social media. And raising capital might also be within closer reach than once thought. “To mitigate high rents, many brands are opening in second-tier locations and that’s very attractive to investors,” says Chad Spaulding, Managing Director at the U.S.-based investment firm Capital Spring. “We spend more of our time seeking low-rent, low-investment type opportunities that provide a value to the consumer that you can count on in tougher times in the wider economy.”

Suburban locations not only fit this bill, they also solve the urban issue of oversaturation. There is simply less competition the farther afield you go. And now, you can actually go further than before. Because Uber Eats drivers and DoorDash dashers can soon be there to meet you — in 30 minutes or less.

There may be less competition and cheaper rents but there are certainly other costs such as increased driving distances to deliver food and finding ways to attract suburbanites to a physical location.

In the long run, it would be interesting to consider what it would take to raise the level of suburban food to that of major cities where awards, interest, and big name chefs seem to be much more common. Does fine dining and innovation in food require a density of restaurants, food workers, and well-heeled customers or could this all come together in some way in the suburbs? Could the suburbs of today who are often interested in developing entertainment and cultural districts really go after high-end and innovative food as a strategy to successfully compete against suburban fast food and chain restaurants?

Only McMansion owners want expensive deliveries of stone crabs

One Miami business owner describes his business and customers:

The process is simple. State law declares that stone crabs have to be cooked with six hours of being caught. For Abramowitz, there are about fifty fisherman and fifty boats who rake in thousands of pounds of stone crabs every morning. The crabs are then dunked for three minutes in boiling water, and placed in ice, where they will stay fresh for over three weeks. Then Abramowitz places them in boxes and ships them nationwide, using FedEx…
The average Fresh Stone Crabs order is over $400. His customers are mostly doctors, lawyers and CEOs with McMansions, all looking for someone to cater a party with fresh crabs. “It’s like a caviar business,” Abramowitz says.

The national shipping ability seems like a recent move for this business. Thus, it may be possible that the owner knows whether Miami area customers actually lived in McMansions.

At the same time, this description seems a little too convenient because of the two pieces of information provided about potential customers. First, we hear that the orders are typically pricey. A $400 price is a little different than ordering McDonald’s or ice cream delivered to your door. Second, we are told about the occupations of those doing the ordering: professionals who tend to have larger salaries. Who fits this bill (and could also desire caviar)? McMansion owners!

It sounds like the use of McMansion here is part of a description for people with money. Since McMansions are also often criticized for their architecture, this is not a positive term. Would a business owner want to say to people spending $400 on crabs, “Nice McMansion you have here?” Or, is it more likely that he is saying that the kinds of people who can afford and like to order stone crabs are people who live in larger houses in ritzier areas? And one way to say that quickly is to call their homes McMansions.

Job growth in the food service industry

What does America make? Increasingly, at least in terms of the number of workers, the answer is food:

In 1990, manufacturing was almost three times larger than the food service industry. But restaurants have gradually closed the gap. At current rates of growth, more people will work at restaurants than in manufacturing in 2020. This mirrors the shift in consumer spending. Restaurants’ share of America’s food budget has doubled from 25 percent in the 1950s to 50 percent today.


Yet, as Derek Thompson notes, our national rhetoric is still stuck in the era of factories and manufacturing:

But the most important feature of the restaurant jobs boom is not what it may say about the future, but rather the fact that it is happening in the first place. Trump and other politicians often say they want to help the common worker. But then they talk about the economy as if it were cryogenically frozen sometime around 1957. The U.S. still makes stuff, but mostly it serves stuff. To help American workers, it helps to begin with an honest accounting of what Americans actually do.

The jobs landscape has experienced much change in the last half century. Certain sectors – such as the tech industry or manufacturing – consistently receive a lot of attention. But, could someone unite the interests as well as depict a group to the public at large that would include restaurant workers, service workers, and nurses (among other fields that have grown tremendously)?

“It’s part of the American identity to have a grill”

This is the final line in a story on grilling. Here are some updates on the American grilling industry:

Grill sales in America are growing only by low single-digit percentages each year, and the market is nearly 20% smaller than it was a decade ago, according to the research firm IBISWorld.

U.S. grill manufacturers — led by Weber-Stephen Products, maker of the iconic Weber grills — also face stiff competition from imports, which now account for 56% of U.S. sales, up from 46% a decade ago, the IBISWorld data show.

Grill sales are closely tied to changes in the U.S. economy, especially the housing industry. So, not surprisingly, the grill business was hammered between 2008 and 2010 when the housing crisis and severe recession took hold…

The Fourth of July is the most popular day of the year for outdoor grilling, with 76% of grill owners planning to fire up their barbecues on the holiday, the HPBA says. Those summer bookends, Memorial Day and Labor Day, tied for second place at 62%…

And in the heated debate between gas and charcoal, gas has the edge. Gas grills outsold charcoal grills, 57.7% to 40.1%. The remaining 2.2% of grills sold were electric.

Based on this article, then grilling is tied to the single-family home, the lawn and backyard, eating meat, and American holidays. Perhaps it is a symbol of having the leisure time to cook slowly outside. We can add the grill – perhaps the distinctive Weber grill in particular – to other consumer goods that supposedly symbolize the American Dream (McMansions, SUVs, large sodas, fast food, big TVs, etc.).

Yet, other people in the world use grills or outdoor cooking spaces. Are Americans really that unique in this regard? Bon Appetit takes a look at grilling around the world after this introduction:

For Americans, firing up the Weber and grilling up some meat has a distinctly patriotic vibe–we barbecue on the 4th of July, after all, and no image of the American Dream would be complete without a cookout-friendly lawn behind that white picket fence–but we’re not the only ones who pride ourselves on our skill with charcoal and tongs. From satay in Singapore to asado in Argentina, there’s a whole world of grilling out there. You can always find regional variations from city to city, town to town, and family to family, but here are some of the world’s great grilling traditions.

So, perhaps Americans just do the grilling in distinct ways: often in private spaces (backyards of owned homes) at particular times (summer holidays).

McMansions as symptomatic of overconsumption in all areas

Reporting on the growing size of American houses, one writer starts off the column this way:

Americans’ waistlines aren’t the only things expanding. Their houses are, too.

This is a common tactic used by journalists and other writing about McMansions in the last fifteen years ago. This could have two purposes:

  1. Link the size of large homes – not owned by the majority of Americans – to other areas of life where Americans are likely to experience larger items.
  2. The problem may not be big houses but rather the fact that Americans like to consume all sorts of things.

I’ve seen a number of examples cited including SUVs, large TVs, air conditioning, and steak. Food comes up occasionally, whether steak or big restaurant portions or oversized sodas.

Regarding the second purpose, few of the news stories have space for tackling how to reduce overall consumption. The criticism is clear – leading the story with the quoted line implies that both things are bad – yet unexplained.