With the recent news of Earth Fare closing its grocery locations, a contemplation of options arises for many of us. A friend recently pointed out that there are a dozen big-box stores in Asheville alone that sell natural and organic food products: two Whole Foods Market stores; two Earth Fare stores; two The Fresh Market stores; [one] Harris Teeter store; three Aldi supermarkets; and one Trader Joe’s.
That’s not counting Ingles, which has incorporated a significant amount of “natural,” organic and health-orientated food in the last number of years.
As a general rule, big-box stores are large retail general merchandise, grocery, or specialty stores represented by a national (or international) chain and often found in large shopping centers surrounded by paved parking lots. In order of number of stores in the chain, here’s how they stack up:
• Aldi has 1,900 stores nationally and over 10,000 internationally.
• Trader Joe’s has 503 stores nationally.
• Whole Foods has 487 stores nationally.
• Harris Teeter has 260 stores nationally.
• Ingles has 200 stores in six states.
• Fresh Market has 159 stores nationally.
• Earth Fare [had] 50 stores in 10 states.
With that much attention on national grocery chain stores, it’s no wonder that more than 99% of the money we spend on food leaves the region. In a 2007 report by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, it was determined that of the $2.2 billion spent on food in Western North Carolina, only $14.5 million was spent on all categories of local food. That’s less than two-thirds of 1%.
We can do better than that. When money stays in the community, it circulates through many hands and many businesses, thereby making it exponentially more supportive of local systems. That’s called the multiplier effect.
This great analogy from the New Economics Foundation handbook says: “Imagine the local economy as a bucket. If someone has $5 and spends it in the local grocers, the $5 stays in the bucket. But when they pay the electricity bill, it doesn’t stay in the bucket. Spending on electricity is like a leak in the bucket: the fiver leaks out as the supplier is a business outside the area. But there are usually ways of stopping all of the five dollars from leaking out. Insulating the house will cut the electricity bill, for example. If there’s a local company to do the work, there’ll be even more in the bucket.”
The multiplier effect says that building the local economy increases well-being for everyone and everything in the region. It boosts jobs, pays workers fairer wages, generates revenue for local government, increases living standards and builds community. Specifically, local food movements connect producers to consumers and eliminate the need for energy-intensive processing, travel time and complex distribution systems. When growers and eaters are working together in this way, it helps increase food security and promotes economic viability of the farmers, which then increases the money that stays in our community and provides many ecological and social benefits.
The University of Vermont put out a great “Top 10 Reasons to Buy Local Food” list that states:
1. Locally grown food tastes and looks better.
2. Local food is better for you.
3. Local food preserves genetic diversity.
4. Local food is safe.
5. Local food supports local families.
6. Local food builds community.
7. Local food preserves open space.
8. Local food keeps taxes down.
9. Local food benefits the environment and wildlife.
10. Local food is an investment in the future.
When we purchase more like 10% of what we collectively eat [in the place] where we live, we will be on our way to building a more sustainable, regenerative and resilient system, which will be a viable alternative to global and industrial practices. And as we support our local farmers, they will thrive. And as they thrive, they care for the land, strengthen the communities, generate income for themselves and others, produce food for our region and grow their capacity for environmental stewardship, ecological awareness, nature reverence and best land use practices.
The news of the closing of all the Earth Fare stores, including the two that many Asheville residents rely on, is actually a wonderful opportunity. Our region, historically renowned for self-reliance and food interdependence, can choose to create the kind of community we desire. It may take some changes in habit, but it all starts with where we spend our dollars. Let’s all make an intention to spend our dollars locally, at farmers markets, directly on farms, at the local food co-op and at locally owned stores.
— Lee Warren
Executive director of Organic Growers School
Editor’s note: Warren also notes that the nonprofit Organic Growers School, based in Asheville, has provided “practical and affordable organic education in the Southern Appalachians” since 1993.