I think my early interest in public policy actually originated on this blog. The earliest conversations we were having here centered around two main things: access to grocery stores, and use of public assistance programs like SNAP/food stamps.
Through the years, there were thousands of comments left on posts of people discussing a common thread—none of us had the good grocery stores in our neighborhoods. Only a few of us who grew up in predominantly black neighborhoods had sidewalks that were not only safe to walk on, but walkable at all. Imagine not even having sidewalks, because so much of the land had been ceded to drivers.
I mean, if you drive, you might value that. I gave up driving years ago.
And, even with that, you might be saying to yourself, “Yeah, but you live in a city with expansive public transit.” I do—sort of. But that’s also a part of what I’m suggesting with this post: public transit, much like grocery stores, were controlled by public policy. And public policy has never been controlled by those who live in our communities.
I picked up a book titled Grocery by Michael Ruhlman, literally just about the business of buying and selling food in America. I was expecting it to be largely about marketing—and, to be sure, that’s a lot of it—but in it was this:
So, in the 1960s and ’70s, Saturdays at the grocery store meant lines and lines of shoppers, their carts overflowing, clogging the aisles all the way to the meat department at the back of the store. As
a boy, I would join Dad and ride in the cart till it became too full and then push the second cart ful when the first overflowed with the week’s food. And then we’d load up the car—an invention that proved to be critical to the growth of the supermarket—for the short haul to our suburban colonial to stuff the refrigerator and the back pantry with our booty.
Ruhlman, Michael. Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America (p. 13). Harry N. Abrams. Kindle Edition.
Now, perhaps I’m aging myself here, but I’d never considered what life was like before the invention and proliferation of the car. When I think back to my time in the suburbs, the grocery store was so far away, there’s no possible way I could’ve walked that distance. I would’ve had to own a car.
And what does that mean for the amount of food you’re able to buy in any given trip? In my city, it’s so common to see people shop with a trolley cart or other kind of cart that grocery store carts come with hooks especially made to hold them while you shop. But in a car? You’re not worried about that at all.
What Grocery does, however, is make an implicit accusation: the invention of the automobile hastened white flight.
After World War II, America entered its economic boom years. Its gross domestic product would quintuple from a prewar $100 billion to $515 billion by the end of the 1950s. White flight had begun, and middle-class families were moving out of cities in large numbers, something that was possible because of the ubiquity of the automobile and the great swaths of undeveloped land surrounding most cities. The Grandview Avenue Shopping Center, built in 1928 outside Columbus, Ohio, was apparently the first “shopping center” in the United States to include parking in its design. But now, with booming populations on plentiful land, real estate developers could create large complexes of stores with oceans of parking space.
In these new spaces, grocery stores could expand to ten and twenty times the size they were when they occupied stores built in shopping areas that had been created to accommodate foot traffic and streetcar lines. One of the under-recognized facts of American real estate development is how our modes of transportation are the fundamental determiners of the way we create our residential and commercial spaces. The advent of the streetcar, as previously noted, brought about the creation of America’s first suburbs—with sidewalks and shopping districts within walking distance—in the first and second decades of the nineteenth century. Spaces that were developed after the automobile became a predominant feature of American life are far from city centers and spread out. It was the automobile, and highways, that led to suburban sprawl. And as the highway system grew, America created even more sprawling exurbs and office complexes centered around interchange cloverleafs.
“From 1948 to 1963 large chains increased their share of the nation’s grocery business from 35 percent to almost half,” writes Harvey Levenstein in Paradox of Plenty. “As early as 1956, the independent corner grocery store, while still visible, was a relic of the past. Full-fledged supermarkets accounted for 62 percent of the nation’s grocery sales, while smaller, self-service ‘superettes’ took in another 28 percent of the food dollar, leaving the 212,000 small food stores to share 10 percent of the market.”
Ruhlman, Michael. Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America (p. 52). Harry N. Abrams. Kindle Edition.
What happens when large portions of the public with the most money flee a community because they no longer need to live near their jobs? The most profitable businesses leave too, especially when they’re given the opportunity to expand their offerings in larger, more spacious stores.
In the period post-emancipation and Reconstruction, Black business owners in the time of Jim Crow were often barred from using the front door of their own businesses, because the front doors were always only for whites. Those were the lengths to which Black people had to go in order to survive in Jim Crow America, but that shows that white people did in fact patronize Black businesses. But now, not only did white people not need to live near Black people, they didn’t need to operate businesses that served them, either. Remember—upholding racism was more important than profits.
In those moments, where that void was created in our communities—yes, it is generations old—you would hope to see black businesses sprout up to fill it. Except now, the businesses are fleeing—which means the employers are fleeing. Where there are fewer employers, there are fewer employed people. And if there’s less money moving freely in a community because people are losing their jobs—also consider that, as we move through the 20th century, lots of manufacturing jobs were going overseas—there are now even fewer kinds of businesses that can thrive, let alone survive. And the businesses that can survive? They are exceptionally low-frills—everything down to customer service is scarce. Sometimes, you get the sense that they shouldn’t even be allowed to be open.
Public policy could’ve and should’ve stopped the bleeding; it didn’t. In many ways, it couldn’t have—suburbs across the country made it damned hard to tax suburbanites who work within their neighboring cities; gerrymandering ensured that the cities, where the bulk of people lived, had the fewest representatives in government speaking on their behalf. before you knew it, whole communities were hollowed out and little to no recourse was available.
There’s a direct correlation here between expanded grocery store access and outcomes in public health. In communities with access to grocery stores and affordable options, the rates of obesity and chronic illness are lower. In communities without, they’re often left with something called a “food swamp,” a veritable wasteland of fast food stores that offer inexpensive and easily accessible food that, although may taste appealing, is associated with high rates of chronic illness like heart disease, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes.
Something as simple as a grocery store can increase opportunity and life expectancy and the overall health of a community has been stripped from communities nationwide, and it has lasting effects. In a report published by the Institute for Child, Youth, and Family Policy at Brandeis University, researchers there have quantified the ramifications of policy that does not consider the inequities that exist in modern society. The report notes that there’s, on average, a difference of 7 years in life expectancy between predominately white and predominantly black communities.
TIME reported on the study:
The problem was, when we found areas with small gaps between neighborhoods, those cities tended to be racially homogenous. In other words, children in Provo, Utah, and Boise, Idaho, have access to comparatively equal opportunities, regardless of which neighborhoods they live in—but those cities are more than 80% white.
In all 100 metro areas in Acevedo-Garcia’s study combined, white children live in neighborhoods with a median score of 73, compared with neighborhood scores of 72 for Asian children, 33 for Hispanic children and 24 for black children. Black and Hispanic kids live with less opportunity than their white and Asian peers almost without exception—even in Bakersfield, Calif., where white kids have the lowest opportunity in the U.S.
The disparities are especially wide in certain parts of the country. Milwaukee and its surrounding area has the widest racial disparity in the U.S., despite having a high overall opportunity score. A white child there lives in a neighborhood with a median opportunity score of 85. For a black child, the median neighborhood score is 6. [source]
The next sentence in the article makes it abundantly clear: “This situation is frustrating to advocates, especially when high-ranking neighborhoods don’t share resources like schools and housing with low-ranking ones that are right next door.”
Y’all, that’s by design. Poverty is by design.
Be clear, this isn’t a screed about how we are victims* of something—it means we simply haven’t been identifying the problem correctly. This is a conversation about policies and collective investment, and not being afraid to challenge both policy and policymakers. It has to be about learning politics and holding the people we vote for accountable for bettering the community instead of selling it out for money and power. We’ve done it before, and we absolutely can do it again.
*Ask me, someday, about how one of the fastest ways to avoid holding powerful people accountable is to convince the people they’ve harmed that they should be ashamed to acknowledge it.