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A vocal segment of the New Food Movement argues that for-profit supermarkets can't be trusted with something as important as feeding their communities

We've cautioned before that even though the "local, sustainable" food movement offers opportunity, on a broader regional and national level, local and “community supported agriculture” are highly politicized movements which, in many cases, don’t recognize a valid role for the free market. Two recent examples demonstrate how the political movement is hijacking the identity of "community grocer."

 


'Supermarkets have taken the potential for a decent living away'

Repeating again the contentions that our "oil-dependent food chain" puts the world at risk of imminent starvation, Brithish chef turned eco-warrior Arthur Potts Dawson told CNN News that supermarkets can't be trusted with supplying our food, lest they become tyrannical armies in the event of food shortages. "...our very lives could be in the hands of the small group of men standing in a corner in Buckingham Palace," he warned.

"...big supermarkets dominate our food chain," Potts said. "British supermarkets are some of the best in the world at controlling, manipulating and delivering cheap food."

That talent for squeezing efficiency out of the distribution chain in the interest of keeping food affordable is not a good thing to him. It's simply oppressive economies of extraction that ultimately leave the consumer at the mercy of capitalism's whims. "Controlling food and its distribution takes a huge amount of money and energy, but because the British food producer could not keep up with the supermarkets' demands for ever-lower prices, the supermarkets have moved to buying globally," he said. "They turned to the products provided by cheap labor in northern and southern Africa, South America and Asia. But in shifting from Britain to the world, our supermarkets managed to destabilize Britain's food infrastructure."

Potts warns of dire, even bloody, consequence in that imagined destabilization: "It feels to me as if we are becoming so overly reliant on our supermarket system, that when it breaks down, all we can turn to is military intervention."

And lest you write Dawson off as a crackpot, take note that he has established the People's Supermarket, a London food cooperative grocery which, in exchange for a $54 annual membership fee, permits shoppers to share in window cleaning, shelf stocking and checkout duties, in exchange for purchasing "sustainable" groceries. "Potts Dawson hopes that once his baby takes off," the London Telegraph glowingly reviewed the effort in May, "the likes of Tesco and Asda will be as a bad dream. We will all put in our community service and revel in 1970s-style food bills, while the big boys founder."

Meanwhile, Potts Dawson counsels local food advocates keep a close eye on the potentially harmful community for-profit grocery store. "Be mindful of what supermarkets are doing and demand to see their business practices," he advised CNN.

'We must shift from being passive consumers'

Meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic, community food security advocate and author Mark Winne has written before that believes inner city supermarkets created so-called "food deserts" where poor people can no longer easily access healthy food because they purposely abandoned inner cities, often out of racist motives.

Winne's now back with his new Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart Cookin' Mamas. In it, he extends that sentiment into proposed action, arguing through anecdote and example that if communities are to be food secure, they must control their food supplies independent of the for-profit grocery store.

Among others, Winne highlights the (not coincidentally named) People's Grocery in Oakland, Calif. Bringing food provision back to that blighted inner city, he argues, "...would necessitate some kind of hybrid business model, one that crosses a well-managed and profitable supermarket with some form of community and worker ownership; not necessarily a majority share, mind you, but enough to begin to rebuild the wealth of West Oakland. 'There's an imperative for greater economic control,'" Winne quotes the People's Grocery manager, "'whereby people shift from being passive consumers to becoming active stakeholders.'"

But don't mistake Winne's call for consumer activity as a rhetorical call for market-driven competition. He has openly advocated for local food policy groups to engage in local political action. He believes such change at city hall is the last and critical step that must be made when market forces and local voluntarism fail to reach critical mass to effect change. He has bluntly praised local ordinances, for instance, that force vendors to serve low income areas, even if at a loss, in order to be granted permission by local government to sell in more affluent neighborhoods.

"The argument we must make is for action, not contemplation;" Winne concludes, "we must engage the food system. ....voices in the city council chambers will be the way that we strengthen our muscles."