Technology holds the promise of raising living standards for all. Yet, history shows that even with innovations as humble as cellophane, the results are often uneven. Today’s urban “food deserts” can be traced back to technological changes that began in our neighborhoods over a century ago.
Winkler Foods, Lindour Meats, Lieb Bakery, Constance Candy. These are just a few of the nearly 100 food stores you would have found in the South Minneapolis neighborhood of Longfellow in the 1930s. They included 67 grocery stores, eight bakeries, seven butchers and ten candy stores. Today, few remain, having been replaced by big chain supermarkets and convenience stores.
Beginning in the 1920s, technological and business innovations gave rise to the supermarket. Shopping slowly moved to larger lots on the periphery, as walking to small, local stores was replaced with driving to large, distant ones. And if you had limited transportation options (i.e. no car), you found yourself with less access to healthy food under this new distribution system.
The good old days?
Before this, people shopped nearly every day at separate stores for meat, baked goods, etc. within walking distance of their home or streetcar line. Many stores offered free delivery and credit, which was made up for in higher prices.
But as noted in Marc Levinson’s The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, many of these stores were run inefficiently. One in four failed each year. Owners had to buy their goods through commissioned brokers instead of directly from wholesalers, which added a layer of cost.
Once refrigeration and cellophane became more prevalent by 1930, stores were able to stock more goods. These innovations, along with cars, allowed people to shop less often. Supermarkets like A&P drove out corner stores by copying their best practices (e.g. free delivery) while undercutting their prices. Amenities like ample off-street parking and air conditioning sealed the deal.
The New Urbanist dream of walkable communities usually includes some small stores. But for groceries, the economics work against it, as their average profit margin is 1.3%. The small, independent stores that survive today do so mainly in low income neighborhoods by either filling an ethnic niche, or through the profits from Slim Jims, Marlboros and Pick 6 tickets.
It’s easy to be lured by what University of Kansas history professor, Jeffrey Moran, has coined “Nostesia” — “a longing for a time that never was.” The truth is, many corner stores were (and still are) run by recent immigrants with few options but to work long hours for uncertain pay. And do consumers really want to spend an extra hour every night buying and lugging home food?
When people wax nostalgic about corner stores, they’re likely remembering the social glue they provided — where neighbors could run into each other to share gossip. And this might well explain the popularity of farmers’ markets (among both consumers and policy makers trying to address “food deserts”), which function as part food source, part carnival.
But time marches on. Once electric cars and one-hour drone delivery take hold, will we someday find ourselves fondly telling our grandchildren, “We used to drive in our minivan down to the ol’ Super America, where Sis and I would lay our paper money on the counter to buy a HUGE pop that had real sugar!”