Introduction: Coercive Consumption

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #2 in February 2006]

In October 2005, the Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC)* published a study mapping the distribution of major player supermarkets in Chicago, against the racial and economic patterns of the city neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, the neighborhoods with a majority of black and poor residents had few if any major player grocery stores. On the other hand, these neighborhoods had a profusion of liquor stores, many of which also sell snack food and sodas.

A common criticism of the mcic study is that it was designed to support a pre-existing agenda, namely creating the economic conditions necessary to entice the big chains into areas they consider low-return. As the neighborhoods are full of people who need to eat, the demand is there, but the income profiles are not.

Perhaps a more interesting view of the shortcomings of the mcic report is offered when we compare it to a different model of assessing community foodscapes, being undertaken by geographer Danny Block and Chicago State University’s Frederick Blum Neighborhood Assistance Center. They put cartographic tools together with the local knowledge of a neighborhood organization to look closely, block by block, at the smaller independent stores, as well as factors like car ownership and public transportation options, to get a picture of what actually is available as well as the concrete conditions of access. A mapping endeavor like this one does more than produce data primarily destined for a select population of developers, large corporate enterprises, and city officials. Even if the mcic data is ostensibly well intentioned, the project of creating it does not engage the people whose lives it may eventually impact. The alternative is to make mapping itself a process that instigates a level of thought and dialogue at the community level. What do we have? What do we want? What are the options? How can we make something different happen?

Significantly, the stores that mcic defines as major players—Jewel, Dominick’s, Aldi and Cub—represent the rapid consolidation of retail grocers worldwide. In Chicago, Jewel is the leading chain with 36 stores, but in the nation, it is a division of Albertson’s with 2,400 stores and the fourth largest market share of retail grocers in the U.S. Since 1998, Dominick’s 18 Chicago stores have been owned by Safeway which has 1,482 stores nationally. Both of these chains are considered “full-service.” And then there is Aldi, officially considered a discount store offering a limited assortment of private label brands. The 26 Aldi stores in Chicago are a small part of a large German-owned supermarket chain operating in 16 countries. Cub Food, also considered a discount store, has a fuller range of products but only 3 stores in Chicago. However, it is a subsidiary of Supervalu, which owns a retail network of over 1,500 stores nationwide and a large wholesale supply chain serving over 2,200 stores.

More and more it is the supermarkets that are calling the shots all the way down the food chain. They have the power to determine what will be grown and where those growers will have a market; how and by whom it will be processed and packaged; how, where, when and by whom it will be picked up and delivered. The number one food retailer worldwide is Wal-Mart, whose market share is twice that of the second largest and whose sheer size allows it to set the norms of practice in labor, trade, environment and technology. The Wal-Mart model of squeezing low prices from global suppliers, paying wages below the poverty line, and requiring suppliers to use Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags on inventory make it virtually impossible for smaller or more conscientious suppliers to participate in the super-sized supply chain.

As these distribution streams come to dominate, they starve the system of capillaries that could supply smaller, more widely distributed outlets. Then it really is only the large stores that can offer the range of what we need and want. Unable to create a place in the distribution schemes, the smaller businesses where the customers have no command-demand can only afford to run a liquor/convenience outlet with nonperishable stock.

More and more of the world’s food systems will be increasingly subject to competition under the mega-store paradigm as multinational grocery expansion and consolidation in Asia and South America are racing ahead. So while the big box stores appear to improve choices, prices and convenience for urban shoppers, they drive a grim decline in the overall diversity of production and distribution options.

Perhaps it is the invisibility of so many important processes and consequences in our lives that has partly spurred the recent interest in mapping projects. To overcome the elisions, omissions and obfuscations, we need a wider variety of visualization tools developed. What is hard to find under the current system is food produced with a minimum of toxins and energy waste, shipped a small number of miles, cultivated and moved by people paid a decent living, and priced within the spending reach of all customers. These are the routes of cultural and biological diversity.

It is that diversity that is going to satisfy any taste we have for better worlds. Our tastes are generally formed in our habits, and by the desire, or the necessity, or the invitation, to venture beyond the convenience of habit. Tastes are also formed in the habitat of social existence, in the elaborately artificial environments to which we are born: worlds made and sustained by people. Let’s take note of what kind of food is available when money drives a different supply: more and fresher ingredients created with little or no petroleum-based inputs, without antibiotics and hormones, devoid of transfats, high fructose corn syrup, or genetically modified ingredients, even products labeled as fair-trade or local. It isn’t far-fetched to assume that most people, if given the information and the money, would prefer the healthier, more ethical foods.

This is why it’s so fantastic to find so many initiatives in Chicago devoted to creating a more rhizomatic food system. What I learned from a month of research headquartered at Mess Hall in Rogers Park last November is that there are groups and individuals in every neighborhood addressing every aspect of the food system and motivated by a taste for equity among consumers, workers and habitats. Knowledge about good, autonomous food production is abundant.

The interviews and testimonies in this issue of area offer an abbreviated sort of map of the diversity of imaginative efforts thriving in the Chicago field. People like Ken Dunn, Ladonna Redmond, Nance Klehm and those in organizations like Growing Power, Chi-Town Chefs, Growing Home, God’s Gang, the Center for Urban Transformation, and many others are creating the knowledge, the habits and the habitats for a different life through changing the ways we sustain ourselves.

*Funded in this instance by the Partnership for New Communities, who work primarily in Chicago Housing Authority Plan for Transformation.

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