Look Out for Food Deserts!


If you live in a rural area in the US or UK , and have to drive many miles to the grocery store, you may soon find your region designated a Food Desert . Fear not: There are sociologists on your side. It's probably only a matter of time before the government attempts to force large grocery stores to open near you (or, more likely, just forces you to pay higher prices for groceries).

The term 'food desert' refers to any location near which 'healthy food' is not readily available at retail. Troy Blanchard, a sociologist at Mississippi State University , has identified such locations in the US , and placed the blame for them squarely on the shoulders of (drum roll) big discount grocery stores. Here's how it works: Big discount grocery stores bring in shoppers from miles around. Smaller stores that offer a more 'limited selection of foods at a higher price' (Blanchard's words) go out of business. Residents of tiny towns, and people who live in the boonies away from any towns at all, have to travel farther for fresh, healthy meat and produce.

In order to (falsely) magnify the issue as much as possible, Blanchard described anyone living more than 10 miles from the nearest big grocery store as having 'low access' to decent grocery shopping. The 10-mile mark was chosen merely because most of us travel an average of 8 miles to the nearest grocery store. In other words, 8 miles is average, so 11 miles is, by arbitrary declaration, a hardship. Bad science is as bad science does.

Blanchard concludes that 'government policymakers and representatives of social service organizations need to be aware of the burden these 'consumer desert' situations may place on them in the future.' What burden could this possibly place on government policymakers? Does Blanchard think Congress should decide where people are allowed to live? Does he think the government should decide where investors should be allowed to locate new grocery stores, how large they should be, and what prices they should charge?

Obviously, government cannot make and enforce such decisions for us'telling people where they can live and invest would represent a greater single step forward into absolute totalitarianism and central economic planning than our government has ever taken (not that that would matter to vote-buying politicians and a few of their handout-seeking voters). But let's look at the issue from the consumer's perspective.

People patronize these mega-marts precisely because they offer increased variety and lower prices. Many of us willingly drive farther than absolutely necessary because, human satisfaction seeking being what it is, we decide that the longer drive is more than offset by the quality and/or price of the goods offered. For my own part, there are two stores of the same chain located near me, and I usually choose the newer one, which is slightly farther away. They both offer the same products at the same prices, but the newer one, being larger, is less likely to have run out of something I want, the store is cleaner, and the drive is more pleasant.

Further, the mom-and-pop stores go out of business precisely because the people who live near them are already choosing to drive farther away to patronize a better store. The rural customers, for whom the longer drives are a hardship (in Prof. Blanchard's world) prove by their actions that they consider the longer drives less of a hardship than the limited selection and higher prices of independent stores.

Are there people who are hurt by the new trend toward fewer, larger stores? Perhaps. The most food-deserted locations in the US are in the California and Arizona deserts and parts of the plains states where few people live anyway. For other locations, such as small towns and the countryside in northern Maine and Montana , there are elderly persons who have never lived anywhere else, and who have watched all the stores in their locales disappear one by one. Unfortunately, the perfectly innocent choices they've made over the course of their lives, combined with unforeseeable changes in economic reality, have put them in this position.

But no one knows the future, and no one can be certain that any particular economic decision will prove, 20 or 50 years later, to have been the best one. Many people invested in the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s, and lost money. Many people developed an artisan's skill in producing beautiful buggy whips. The government could not have forced people to buy those buggy whips had it tried.

And the government cannot force people not to live in rural areas; nor can it force them to patronize grocery stores whose prices and selection they dislike. The government can enforce price controls, however, and is already doing so in the food business everywhere you look. From paying farmers to burn crops to placing huge tariffs on imported foods, the government is keeping your prices artificially high already, and thus is keeping your standard of living artificially low.

Price supports that would allow inefficient mom-and-pop operations to stay in business would have to be directed exclusively at large grocery stores and chains, and the government would have to decide what constitutes a 'large' one. Being unprecedented, this new system of price controls would require a new bureaucratic infrastructure of its own, to determine which chains or individual stores are exempt from the price strictures. This, in turn, would create incentives for cheating among grocers, would invite bureaucratic corruption, and would divert the productive energies of managers to creating (e.g.) new business structures to get around the price laws.

In free economic life, times change, and people who don't change with them can occasionally suffer hardships. But economic trends are the product of hundreds of millions of consumers making decisions, each in his own best interest, every day. Government can do nothing about this without creating millions of losers for the benefit of a very few. This will always be true, in the grocery business as in every other.

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