MONOPOLY MATTERS

The Tradition of Public Food Markets Reemerges in Trump Country

by Claire Kelloway for Open Markets’ Food & Power

Baldwin, Florida, a town of roughly 1,600 residents west of Jacksonville, lost its last grocery store in 2018. Residents were left with a Dollar General and a 10-mile drive to the nearest full-service store. The town council couldn’t attract another grocery chain to take over the store, but they did own the property. So the council and Baldwin Mayor Sean Lynch decided the town would get in the grocery business and re-opened the store.

This little grocery store has drawn national attention from The New York Times and most recently The Washington Post as an unlikely revival of publicly run food provision – in a town where 68 percent of residents voted for Trump.

Baldwin’s store may be one of the first in the country, but it resembles other collective and community-driven efforts to combat rural food deserts, which were partly created by predatory big-box stores. It also revives a forgotten notion that government should provide open and accessible food markets, which were a central part of municipal planning and responsibility through the 19th century.

Nearly 5 million people in rural areas live more than 10 miles from a grocery store, according to the USDA. Big-box chains, in particular Walmart and Dollar General, have a stranglehold on groceries outside metro areas. Walmart sells at least 50 percent of all groceries in one out of three “micropolitan” areas, or smaller, remote cities, according to astudy by the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR). Another ILSR report highlighted the rapid growth of dollar stores in rural and urban food deserts, arguing that these deep discounters drive out independent stores and offer few fresh foods.

Large chains, especially Walmart, can rely on their size and Wall Street backing to sell below cost until their competitors are out of business. Independent grocery store owners listed competition from large chain stores as their single largest challenge, in a survey by the Kansas State University Rural Grocery Initiative. (It’s worth noting that such aggressive discounting, or predatory pricing, was outlawed under the Robison-Patman Act of 1936 but since the 1970s has become difficult to challenge in court.)

Such anti-competitive tactics, paired with a shrinking consumer base, have brought independent small-town grocery stores to the brink of extinction – and, along with them, many small towns. “A lot of these small towns are just struggling for existence,” David Proctor told Food & Power last year. “We believe grocery stores are vital to maintaining” these towns.

Rural and urban communities are pioneering food-retail models to sustain grocery stores in areas left behind by supermarket chains, from nonprofit ventures and staff-less membership models to food hubs and cooperatives (even where some residents reject the term). “There’s a long-standing interest in community-owned or nonprofit … alternative forms of food retailing to get food into places that don’t have it right now,” says Brian Lang, director of healthy food access at The Food Trust.

Still, Lang says, towns with publicly owned and run stores are “sort of new and novel.” At least one other small town – St. Paul, Kansas – owns a grocery store, and two more Kansas towns are taking steps to do the same. Like Baldwin, the precincts around St. Paul (in fact, most of non-metro Kansas) swung heavily for Trump, making them unlikely places for a nominally socialist enterprise. But Lynch thinks of Baldwin’s store as well within the government’s responsibility to provide essential utilities – in this case, an accessible food source. “We take the water out of the ground, and we pump it to your house and charge you,” Lynch told The Washington Post. “So what’s the difference with a grocery store?”

As it turns out, this notion is actually not that new or radical. “Once upon a time, [creating public food markets] was something that governments did and people expected it to do,” says Lang.

Throughout the 19th century, municipalities made substantial investments in public markets, including grand sites such as Seattle’s Pike Place Market and Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Some larger cities also invested in wholesale terminal markets along railways, to centralize food collection, inspection, and storage. Farmers, producers, and food sellers could rent stalls at public markets to reach consumers. Public officials also argued that connecting producers and consumers at the public market helped bring down food costs.

Public-market regulations aimed to ensure access to sanitary, healthy, and affordable food for eaters, as well as access to markets for farmers. They also established rules against “unfair competition,” according to a review of Helen Tangires’ Public Markets and Civic Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. These markets existed alongside other private food retailers, including early grocery stores and co-ops, but Tangires argued in an article for the National Archives that, into the early 20th century, “most people still could not imagine a society without public markets” to keep down the cost of food.

However, even before the turn of the century, public markets had started to deteriorate after a deregulatory period in the mid-19th century. Private food retailers eclipsed public markets as a more sanitary and convenient source of food. Early 20th-century efforts to reform and rebuild public markets came a little too late, and by the 1950s private entities and the supermarket model came to dominate food distribution and retailing.

But, as Baldwin and St. Paul suggest, the principle that government should have a role in creating markets that guarantee accessible, affordable, and healthy food does not need to disappear. It could be time to revive this view of food markets as essential utilities for community survival.

“Food is a basic human amenity,” says Lang. “In places where people can’t access it, [governments] absolutely should be trying to do things like this.”