Monday, May 16, 2011

Food And Some Of Our "Bad" Habits

The other day I may have riled some of my readers with some comments about a local “good foods education” program. I meant no disrespect but there is much more in the way of food access and awareness which needs to be taught. There are not enough of these grass roots organizations to adequately rid our urban areas of the food deserts that we know are there.

Food deserts are basically defined as areas of few(if any) grocery stores and other dining places. Fast food drive-ins would not qualify as a dining place in my book and many others. I am also beginning to realize that the chain grocery and supermarket stores are not much better for the “not-so-savvy” consumer and those highly susceptible to marketing techniques.

Today's supermarket is not designed to sell good healthy food for a fair price. Actually it is just the opposite, sell a high margin item for whatever price the market will bear and really maximize the profit. Those items are generally highly mass produced, full of chemical preservatives and full of sugar(though lately it is all high-fructose corn syrup). High margin items are most likely to be placed on sale in order to entice you to come in for all the other high margin items. The money is in the volume of product not the individual item itself.

Supermarkets will average about 500 square feet for every 10,000 of the whole store in fresh fruits and vegetables. In the “big box” style stores (Meijer, Kroger Marketplace, and others) the ratio is probably much less. The rest is all processed, and many are highly processed, foods of varying nutritional value. And it is all designed to sell the cheap stuff.

Consider the typical grocery store design. Nice wide aisles and plenty of space for comparison shopping? Hardly. There are displays to maneuver around and dangling racks everywhere you look. Think of it as traffic calming and impulse suggestions. The more that you see something the more you want it.

Even product location is important to impulse buying. Why is the dairy case in the very back of the store where you have to pass just about everything else just get a carton of milk or a dozen eggs. Then the bakery off to the side which pulls you past some other things that you may not know that you need.

The store atmosphere is very important. Why do they keep the darn place so cold, like the AC in on frostbite? The simple answer is – human instinct. We humans tend to prepare for winter when we chill and that means stockpiling for the winter ahead. People, they are playing with our heads.

Now consider the products that are placed there. Products produced in such volume that no one farm could generate it all. Dairies with bucolic names that have to have thousands of cows being milked 24/7 in order to supply it all. Products that have almost no local representation and are shipped in from thousands of miles away. Food, food everywhere and not much of it worth eating.

In this day of energy conservation and the entire country wishing to cut back on energy usage, the modern supermarket is an energy HOG. Keeping the store to sell stuff takes massive amounts of air conditioning effort. Largely windowless walls lead to increased lighting needs and refrigeration cases and storage add to the energy footprint. Massive parking lots as heat islands in summer and frozen tundra in winter, it is no wonder that supermarkets make difficult LEED projects for creating “green” buildings. There is much that can be done, both in changing our shopping habits and changing our supermarket design. The latter will follow the former.

Lexington's two newest urban grocery stores are a start in the right direction, though they probably follow the normal convention on product placement and energy usage, but the industry will not turn on a dime as the saying goes. It has taken us nearly 80 years to learn our bad habits, how long or what dire situation will help us or cause us “unlearn” those habits?

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