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Market forces

(article, Angela Allen)

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In our efforts to eat well, the marketplace looms large and complicated. After all, most of us have to shop for our dinner, whether we pile the wild-yeast bread into the hybrid or carry out the organic grapes in reused bags. Or just throw it all in the back of the petrol-hog pickup and be done with it.
 
[%image grocery size=medium float=left caption="The marketplace looms large and complicated."] 

Supermarkets, the retail darlings of the early 20th century, have lost market share as consumers spend more time and money at both big-box discounters (Costco, Wal-Mart) and higher-end grocery chains (Whole Foods, Wild Oats). Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, sells nearly a quarter of the groceries purchased in the U.S. And why not? Alongside all those discounted conventional foods, the megachain sells organic vegetables at lower prices than many other purveyors. 

Those other purveyors include local co-ops, farmers’ markets, and community-supported agriculture systems (CSAs), which bring everything from pastured eggs and hormone-free beef to fresh flowers and seasonal vegetables right to the neighborhood.
 
Many people mix it up, shopping for cheap staples in one store and fresh produce and meats elsewhere. With so many options, shopping for food can be as complicated an endeavor as decoding the New-Age Tomato.
 
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h1. At how many different places do you buy groceries in a week?

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But as choices become more varied, one aspect of the new grocery economy is clear: Price is no longer the rock-bottom line. King Kullen, an early supermarket chain in the Northeast, coined the slogan, “Pile it high. Sell it low.” But for many shoppers these days, face time with the tomato farmer counts for as much as bargain prices.
 
Planet-conscious consumers are calculating the cost of unsustainably grown food as much as they are their grocery bills. Why fry cheaper Canadian grain-fed farmed fish when you can grill slightly pricier Oregon troll-caught salmon? Given the fact that the wild stuff taxes the planet and the health of its inhabitants less than its industrialized counterparts, the premium stuff often seems like a bargain. And it generally tastes better, too.
 
With the enormous array of products and agricultural practices at play, the consumer has the clout to call the food-shopping shots.
 
“If you feel that your food dollars are supporting morally or ethically objectionable practices — brutal factory farms or environmental pollution — you can withhold your support and vote with your fork for a better alternative,” Michael Pollan, author of the bestselling The Omnivore's Dilemma, said in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times.
 
And that, more and more, is what people are doing.
 
h3. Where we vote with our forks
 
David Baguley, in his book Napoleon III and His Regime: An Extravaganza, wrote that Napoleon III’s inner-city Paris is the model for the modern Western marketplace. As the roiling bourgeois economy grew in the mid-1800s, the French leader widened Paris’ boulevards in part so that farmers could transport their artichokes and goat cheese to the cityfolk. 

You might say we are coming full circle.
 
Today, 21st-century neighborhood farmers’ markets supply us with vegetables and fruits, as well as meat, cheese, and milk, raised on nearby land. In mostly urban areas across the country, farmers’ markets have become weekly, even daily, fixtures (although none are open 24 hours a day). The USDA estimates that more than 3,800 farmers’ markets operate nationwide, double the number 13 years ago.
 
It all sounds good and clean. But there are complexities. For instance, when 25 farmers, each with an eight-cylinder pickup truck, park and unload at a farmers’ market, is that efficient and environmentally friendly? Sure, local berries are fresher than those flown in from Chile, but are we burning up too much fuel to eat locally?
 
One way supermarkets can compete is to adapt. In Oregon, a popular supermarket chain wants to sell food that is local and efficiently delivered. But efficiency is a challenge, says Lisa Sedlar, president of New Seasons, a Portland-based eight-store chain that focuses, in part, on selling sustainably raised, locally sourced food. 

“Sure, we have a lot of farmers’ trucks lined up at the loading docks," she says. "We’re working on that.”
 
[%image newseasons size=medium float=right caption="New Seasons Markets stocks a full third of its products from suppliers in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California."] 

New Seasons is streamlining deliveries by working with the Organically Grown Company to “aggregate deliveries,” Sedlar says, but there’s more coordination to do.
 
The chain buys a full third of its food from 125 farmers and suppliers in Oregon, Washington, and northern California. Frosted Flakes and Thai rice noodles share shelf space, but most of the chain's perishable food is nurtured within several hundred miles of Portland. Lamb comes from a farm in Riddle, Oregon, where animals feed off grass, not grain. These cuts of meat don’t sit alongside New Zealand lamb.
 
The “homegrown” philosophy — New Season’s one-year-old label is called Home Grown — carries many benefits, if not the lowest cost. It means people who shop there eat fresher food, which tastes better and, since shelf life is less important, has fewer preservatives. It preserves regional land and farmers’ jobs. 

And as the writer Wendell Berry and others have pointed out, if we keep the fields planted, we build a good defense against urban sprawl.
 
Eating from nearby sources lets us know that we can provide for ourselves by leaving us less dependent on faraway, foreign, or centralized markets. And that’s security, for which many people will pay extra.
 
“Grocery shopping is not just a price proposition,” says Sedlar.
 
h3. When price wins, choices diminish
 
Still, many shoppers plump for the bargain-priced romaine at Wal-Mart. Places like Wal-Mart and Target aren’t supermarkets, but one-stop shops that sell tools as well as turkey. They are models of efficiency, and like the King Kullen stores before them, proud of their price-slashing.

Price may be the bottom line in those stores, but surprisingly, choice is not, especially in the produce section — and that goes for traditional supermarkets as well. Despite the 40,000 products available in the typical grocery store, New Seasons’ Sedlar argues that a handful of distributors are responsible for most grocery-store produce, which is secured from all over the world.
 
The largest — Wal-Mart, Albertsons, Safeway, Costco, and Ahold (which owns Stop ‘n’ Shop markets in the Northeast) — do 75 percent of the country’s grocery business, meaning people in Minneapolis are often eating the same thing as people in Phoenix.
 
“Our dinner could come from 1,500 miles away,” Sedlar said last September in a City Club of Portland forum titled “Oregon’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.” “Five guys are deciding what we’re eating.”
 
Brokers buy at a central distribution spot. Produce is then flown to regional centers and trucked to individual stores. “It travels a long time,” she says. “There’s no connection between the farmer and the consumer.”
 
Nor between the food and the eater.
 
So, local food, when it’s delivered efficiently, makes sense on many levels. 
 
Nevertheless, we have to face the fact that obtaining our food taxes the environment, whether we buy it at the Wednesday-afternoon farmers’ market or at the 24-hour supermarket. Food, then, tasty or bland, is linked to global warming and energy.
 
h3. Eco-op, a new way to shop
 
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h1. From design to reality?
 
Eco-op models are posted on design boards at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, where Paul Platosh heads the communication-design department.
 
The designs show brightly colored polypropylene containers that are reusable and washable (the larger ones break into two pieces). Among them: a bright red oil and/or condiment bottle, a produce bag, an egg carton, a liquid cleaning-supply bottle, a coffee and/or butter tub, a beverage holder, and a sleek freezer box. 

Most come in various sizes, depending on how much olive oil or how many pounds of coffee you want. Products are measured by volume, not weight, which makes measurements easier, Platosh says.
 
At Eco-op, shoppers would return their containers to the store, have them refilled at a central place, and bring them back when they need more food. Without packages, Platosh’s design reduces waste as well as the cost of food, making Eco-op’s motto “Local seasonal foods by choice, healthy food by design.”

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That’s where Eco-op comes in. Eco-op is a retailing concept developed by Paul Platosh, a design professor and environmental visionary in Portland, Oregon.
 
Platosh, 34, who loves spending time in any kind of market, says that today’s grocery stores “haven’t adapted to the way we live.”
 
His concept — begun as an academic project he titled “Revisioning the Marketplace: A Radical Redesign of the Modern Supermarket” — hinges on making food shopping a cleaner endeavor than it is in conventional markets by eliminating most packaging.
 
The logic? Food is healthier for us when it’s healthier for the environment. The catch? Buy your groceries in bulk, return your containers, and say goodbye to fancy or informational (think nutritional labels) packaging.
 
Platosh designed 11 differently shaped containers (see sidebar), some in several sizes, for supermarket products. He calculates that some 30,000 different products will fit comfortably (not all at once, of course) into one of his plastic containers.
 
“People are willing to pay more for green energy or organic food, so Eco-op hinges on the idea that the shopper would likewise be willing to return containers while getting a better price,” says Platosh. “You save money and in exchange do something good for the environment.”
 
In effect, Eco-op allows shoppers to “act politically,” as Michael Pollan says, by reducing waste. The payoff? Consumers profit from lower costs and the planet suffers less stress.
 
Platosh cites the sustainable-lingo mantra “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” and argues that “recycle” is the least efficient element of the three, with "reduce" following just behind. “Recycling is a poor, unsustainable answer to the problem of waste packaging,” he says. "And reducing is not a realistic expectation in a plentiful marketplace."
 
His conclusion: Reuse is the cornerstone of Eco-op. So is reducing fossil-fuel use.
 
Platosh’s supermarket prototype shows a multi-storied glass building with lots of light and communal areas. His design replaces the parking lot — no cars, please! — with gardens and trees so that shoppers can connect with the outdoors, the source of their food.
 
Platosh insists on keeping the physical marketplace, though some argue that online shopping is the ticket to burning less fossil fuel to better sustain the environment. But online grocery shopping didn’t survive the marketplace when it surfaced 10 years ago.
 
[%image storefront width=450 float=left caption="Eco-op has lots of light and communal areas, but no parking lot."]Currently, Platosh’s idea is not being brought to the market, but an idea like Eco-op may be one whose time has come.

“People value the social aspects of the marketplace,” Platosh says. “And people want to touch the tomatoes.”
 
p(bio clear). Angela Allen writes about food, wine, fashion, and opera. She interviewed Barry Glassner on Culinate.


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