When I was a pretty young kid growing up in Englewood, New Jersey, Foodtown supermarket was the store that my mom used one day to teach me about a few important life issues. Mom always kept a shopping list going in the kitchen. One of the times her list had gotten pretty long and we were out running other errands in town, Mom stopped by the Foodtown which was located about a mile from our home and asked me to run in and purchase a couple of items for her. “I forgot there was a grocery store so near our home, Mom. We always shop somewhere else. Why don’t you park and we can go buy all of the items on your list?” I wanted to know.
“Not here, Kim,” Mom said.
“But we’re so close to home, Mom, this is the best place to shop!”
“Expensive,” Mom huffed. Mom used to huff, or puff, waggle her finger and maybe roll her eyes around when she was upset over something. Gosh, I miss that woman. “Kimi, we don’t shop at Foodtown because of their exploitative pricing policy.” What did she say? Ooof, try wrapping your head around a phrase like that at under age 10. “Foodtown prices are really expensive,” Mom clarified, “because it takes advantage of being located in a neighborhood where it is the only supermarket within a pretty wide area, and a lot of the local residents are poor people with limited mobility.” Uh oh, this must be one of those teachable moments, I was thinking, and I have no idea what this woman is talking about. Sounds interesting, though, I better listen.
“People who have cars and the leisure time to “comparison shop,” Mom went on, “drive to supermarkets in neighborhoods where there are a few grocery stores located near each other; the competition between them drives prices lower. The produce is better in better in places like that too,” Mom pointed out. “Greater selection,” she called it, “because of their large audience and fast turnover. Although, Foodtown’s produce is actually pretty good quality. Just too expensive!” Mom continued, “The local poor are a ‘captive audience’ that are virtually forced to pay the higher prices that Foodtown charges. It’s a form of exploitation,” she finished.
I was stunned, paralyzed by the scary thought of this daily injustice taking place just a short distance from our home. “It doesn’t make sense, Mom, for poor people to pay more for their groceries than rich people do. How will they stop being poor?” My Mom gave me an appraising eye. She never hurried her children through a moment when they were experiencing some type of epiphany, so although she wanted to get home and start dinner, Mom gave me time to think through this world of social inequality I had just been introduced to, in which people with large kitchens and nice cars drove miles away to stores like the ones my family shopped in, full of beautiful produce, super-stocked isles and excellent prices – while some of my schoolfriends’ families were left behind to do their shopping in dingy Foodtown, which offered way fewer choices and really expensive lettuce!
Eventually, my agile, under-10 year old mind stumbled across the obvious solution to the injustice being played out. “Mom, Foodtown should move! It’s prices could be lower and it wouldn’t need to take advantage of people,” I said earnestly. “We should go in and tell them that!” I noticed right away that Mom wasn’t hurrying to move her car into a parking spot.
Mom smiled a little wistful, sad smile at me. “That’s a really good idea, Kimi, but believe it or not, they don’t want to move!”
“Mom, I know moving would be hard, but I’m sure the Foodtown owners will do it if they understand what’s happening to the poor people in this neighborhood, who can’t afford to pay their high prices.”
“Kimi,” she asked me, “if the supermarket moves, where would the poor people buy their groceries?”
“In a cheaper supermarket, like we do!”
“And, how would they get there, Kimi? Remember, a lot of people shopping here have no cars. If they did, and if they could fit in the time to travel to another town to do their shopping, a lot of people who shop at Foodtown would drive somewhere else and get stuff cheaper, like we do. Now, listen,” mom leveled her voice, steadying me with the logic in it, “I know you’re not going to feel happy with what I’m about to tell you, Kimi, but the owners of Foodtown chose to locate their supermarket here exactly because they want to charge poor people high prices for their groceries. And, they have no intention of going anywhere as long as they can make a whole lot of money doing just that.”
This was definitely new mental territory for me, and it felt like thin ice. Mom was rocking my world. “So what’s the solution, Mom?” I demanded, “Poor people can’t just keep paying high prices for their groceries. They’ll be even poorer every day.” Mom didn’t have a ready answer to that one, so she threw it back at me and asked me what I thought. At that point, the only rational thing I could think of was to get out of our nice car and go buy my mom’s couple of items at expensive, exploitative, predatory Foodtown, a place I never, ever wanted to be near again, which did terrible things to its customers every day: consigning them with each purchase to a further extension of the sentence of being poor and having no car, limited mobility and suffering under the burden of being taken advantage of by people who should know better than to do so, but did not act on their knowledge to bring anything good into the world. It all felt like a little bit much to handle, but still, I didn’t need to return to Foodtown any time soon, like some of my schoolfriends needed to do – if they wanted to eat.
I learned one more lesson with Mom that day. Thinking makes people hungry.