In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Donald Boudreaux asked what would happen “If Supermarkets Were Like Schools.” The picture he paints is not particularly pretty. From families being mandated to shop at one store based on their address to the effect such a structure would have on food quality and variety, he uses the analogy as a way to highlight problems he sees with the education system. But the question also raises some interesting concerns about how changes in our food delivery system could have a significant impact on what we eat and what food is available.
1. One Stop Shopping
If supermarkets were like schools, everyone would have one local public supermarket where all their groceries would be provided. Tax dollars would fund the store and anyone who has the money to shop at a private grocery store or an alternative food venue like a farmer’s market would still have to pay the same amount to the public market. Despite having to pay in to the public market, the choice to shop privately now means they are now excluded from receiving any food from the public market. Think about what this would mean for things like selection, food quality, and customer service.
Without the pressure of consumer choice, public markets have no incentive to offer the best selection of products or the highest quality food. Many people lack the means to shop outside the public system and must take whatever they can get from the public market. As a public institution, the supermarket system becomes politicized. The government mandates what foods can be stocked and special interest groups use political pressure to get one product in the public market over others.
Bureaucrats who feel negligent parents cannot be trusted to purchase healthy food for their children dictate what food can be purchased by families with children. Food mandates affect the law of supply and demand which combines with the pressure to keep prices low from taxpayer watchdogs to rapidly decrease the quality of the food available. In an attempt to make sure every child is provided with exactly the right amount of healthy food, the health and well-being of all children is impacted as the variety of food available and the quality of that food continues to decline.
4. Special Needs
In a world where the supermarkets are run like the schools, parents hope and pray that their children won’t have any food allergies. When the food in your grocery cart is mandated by an external source rather than by the needs of your family, a child with a food allergy means you have to find extra money in your budget to make sure that child gets enough food to meet their nutritional needs. The public market provides minimal support in this area, but is only required to offer enough alternative allergy relief food to keep your child alive. If you want them to thrive and grow like other children, you would have to find other avenues to meet their needs.
The public supermarkets are blamed for under serving their customers even though there is little each individual store can do to decrease the long lines and empty shelves created by government mandates, strict job descriptions, and inefficient operational practices. Public markets have trouble attracting and retaining quality employees because of lower pay scales and little incentive to excel in their position or provide excellent service to their customers. The system provides a safe haven for bad employees because all raises, promotions, and benefits are based on seniority rather than performance and store managers have little power to fire people who perform poorly. Many public markets develop safety issues as hostile and belligerent employees and customers cannot be banned from the store regardless of the danger they pose to other customers.
Ironically and sadly, similar scenarios do exist in other countries without the free market systems we enjoy in America.
Although the original article was meant to highlight why the education system should be run as a free market enterprise, it also serves to highlight the importance of the free market, consumer choice, and competition in our food supply and gives us all a reason to be thankful that we can choose where to shop, what to buy, and how best to meet the nutritional needs of our families.
- The Secret Weapon in the Happy Meal Wars: Parents (fillyourplate.org)
- Donald J. Boudreaux: If Supermarkets Were Like Public Schools (online.wsj.com)