California “Food Miles” Cannot Be Discussed in Isolation from Land Use Policies

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Recently in the Davis Enterprise, John Mott-Smith had a provocative piece on the importance of keeping down food miles.

From our perspective there are actually two issues that important in food miles. First the distance that the food travels to stores. Second, the distance that we travel to stores to get the food.

In arguing for reduction in distance food is transported, Mr. Mott-Smith writes:

“Generally, locally grown food purchased in season is fresher, more healthful and requires less energy to produce and transport to market, and we should encourage stores and restaurants to provide food that is produced locally.”

Second he argued for neighborhood grocery stores:

“How we get to the market to buy the food is also important. One of the best things we can do is walk or bike to the store. Of course, whether we can walk or bike to a store depends on whether there is a food store near where we live.

Not too long ago, there was a food store within a half-mile of every resident in Davis. The trend to larger stores has been one cause of the closure of several of these “neighborhood stores.” As the effects of climate change and “peak oil” make themselves felt in our economy and our daily lives, having essential services such as a grocery store accessible to each neighborhood will be an important element in reducing the number and distance of vehicle trips in the community.”

Extending his argument out further, what he is really talking about having grocery stores that are locally owned and operated and also small and conveniently located within our neighborhoods.

As we have spent much time discussing this year, we have moved away from the neighborhood grocery store model and towards a centralized model with large supermarkets–the two Safeways and the Nugget on East Covell.

Davis Manor, West Lake, and University Mall no longer have their neighborhood grocery stores.

At the same time, a store like Safeway is particularly harmful for the environment and the economy of a place like Davis. They transport all of their food in–this requires large amounts of fossil fuel burning.

And as we have mentioned previously, they take in money from this community and then transport it back to Oakland. The profits go to Oakland. They sit in an Oakland bank. In other words, they suck money out of the community, give a small amount back to their employees, give a small amount back in tax dollars, most of the money leaks out.

This is the argument not only against large national supermarket chains, but against all national chains and big-box stores.

They sound alluring for the consumer offering a broad array of choices and at times better prices (if you catch their items on sale), but in terms of health to the local economy, that health is illusive at best.

Particularly bad is a store like Target. The city projects a tax revenue of roughly $600,000 from Target. I actually think that’s optimistic once you figure in lost revenue and stores going out of business in the core and the cost of public safety.

But the problem with a place like Target from both an environmental and an economic standpoint is the habits that people will have to undertake to get there, to get merchandise there, to work there, and to purchase products there.

The economic benefits are actually quite limited. The majority of the products sold there will be imported from elsewhere. The money will be sent to their corporate offices. Their employees will largely be imported in from West Sacramento, Woodland, and Dixon. Thus they will use the majority of their money to purchase goods and services out of town. Why? Cannot afford to live in Davis on Target wages.

It is nice to have a revenue base in a city, but where business really helps is the multiplier effect. Here’s an example. If I live in Davis and open up a business. The revenue I make in Davis gets spent by me primarily in Davis. I hire employees, they live in Davis, the money that they earn is then spent on goods and services in Davis primarily. And the money that is spent on goods and services goes to other people who spent their earnings on the same and down the line. In other words, the more money spent in Davis that stays in Davis simply proliferates around the community.

On the other hand, if I spend money and it goes to Oakland or Minneapolis, that does not happen.

So from an economic perspective, local communities are best off having local business who buy their products locally. From an environmental perspective, we are the same.

This all sounds good but then consumers stick their noses into the argument at this point and tell us that they want to be able to choose from a broad selection and consume the products that they want at a cheap price.

The two responses to that point should be that if you believe we are facing an impending global warming crisis, then you need to change your consumption habits. We will not get the deep cuts in carbon and greenhouse gas emissions without changing our behavior.

Second, everyone talks about how much cheaper big-box stores are than other stores, for the most part that’s actually not true. Studies have shown that what actually happens is that big-box stores cherry pick on a few products that are recognizable and charge less. They also have a tendency to charge less when they move into an area, drive out competition, and then adjust to market rate prices.

Everyone talks about how expensive Nugget is. The only difference between Nugget prices and Safeway prices are that Safeway has more frequent sales and they rotate their sales. So if you catch a product on sale, yes it is cheaper. The base price of Safeway products is as expensive as the Nugget. So what generally happens is that consumers will purchase some products on sale but for the most part will buy products that are not on sale and end up spending about the same.

The bottom line is that we have come to accept our market rather than sought to change it. Just because right now big-box and national chains appear to offer more products at a better price does not mean we are stuck with having to use those environmentally and economically harmful vendors.

At the local level we need to fight to make local business more competitive. That is something that a city council can do. Give local business incentives and benefits that will enable them to be competitive against the national chains.

In the end John Mott-Smith wrote an interesting piece about food miles, but he did not go far enough talking about policies in the city to encourage neighborhood grocery stores. He did not extend those discussions to beyond food. He did not get into the difficult political areas of discussion that will be needed to enact the type of changes he advocates.

In the coming weeks we’ll be talking on the Vanguard about the impact of city driven-policies toward the reduction of carbon emissions and one of the areas that we need to focus on is the disconnect between the council’s words on climate change and their actions and land use policies.

Doug Paul Davis is a resident of the city of Davis and has created the People’s Vanguard of Davis, a progressive blog that covers mainly Yolo County but also some California news where this article originally appeared. It is republished with his permission.

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