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MNB had a story – and a lot of follow-up emails – last week about how food prices in poor neighborhoods often can be more expensive than in more affluent communities, which can have the effect of heightening the impact of the recession on people who can least afford it.

To which one MNB user responded:

I was disappointed today that the emails regarding stores in low-income neighborhoods focused so much on blaming the poor. "Undesirables", high shrink, "scary neighborhoods." What about "high density population", "less competition", "less likely to be eating out"? It's all in how you look at it. There have been several studies by economists that say grocery stores can be MORE profitable in inner city, lower income neighborhoods. Poor inner-city folks are more likely to go to the store more often, too, as they are less likely to have cars or the money to stock up. That is an opportunity if you ask me. It just requires understanding the audience and meeting their needs, which the rich white folks running the grocery store chains may have a hard time doing.

Some people see high risk, and others see opportunity. The problem, it seems to me, is that if you only see poorer neighborhoods as high risk, you can't have ever reverse the trend.

MNB user Liz Schlegel wrote:

I was saddened to read David Livingston's comments this morning (though glad, as always, that you provide a forum for discussions like these!).

"Low income residents basically get their food for free with WIC, Food Stamps, etc. It's only natural that stores would charge higher prices."

The idea of a social safety net is that it is there for people who need it - and poverty is a very real fact of American life. The food stamp program, inadequate as it is (the numbers for poverty level have not been adjusted in decades), pays full price for the groceries - the stores aren't giving a discount on the products purchased, and they are compensated for the effort (minimal) required to set-up acceptance of the swipe cards. Why would the method of payment - food stamps, credit card, cash, gift certificates - justify an increase in the prices charged? That's not a logical answer.

Mr. Livingston went on...

Some of my successful clients operate inner city stores. They have found that they do better by not even accepting WIC or Food Stamps. First it keeps undesirable customers out of the store making the shopping experience nicer for others. It also reduces theft and security expense.

Classifying people who are currently utilizing government assistance - food stamps, Medicaid, disability - as "undesirable" also exposes some unpleasant assumptions. The reality in America - as the study you referenced pointed out - is that people who have less money also have fewer food choices at higher cost - and that has a terrible impact on dietary choices, nutrition, and successful learning for the children in these households. And however folks may feel about the adults in poverty, it's unconscionable to keep putting these negative stereotypes onto the next generation.

MNB user Dave Tuchler chimed in:

I was floored by a reader's comments grocery prices and availability in lower income areas. It is a tragedy that in areas where disposable income is hardest to come by, that the basic necessities are harder and more expensive to come by than elsewhere.

Some interesting generalizations made, most of which, to be charitable, seem really myopic -- but mostly are depressingly cynical.

To your point, I'm sure a lot of low-income people would be ecstatic once they realize they're getting their food for free. (If they subscribed to MNB they'd have found out like I did.)

• Food purchasing is not a closed-loop system - - money saved with WIC/food stamps might be currently used for trivialities like utilities or clothes or school supplies or rent - - or for higher quality food, for that matter, and no guarantee that amount of food purchased would stay the same if WIC/Food stamps were eliminated.

• By eliminating school meal programs, the assumption is what? - that all parents would of course regularly provide these meals, which would benefit supermarkets? a) people don't always do the right thing - they may choose not to provide a good breakfast and pack a lunch for their kids, especially when cost is a challenge b) it's obvious that the welfare of supermarkets should supercede that of school-age kids, for whom breakfast and lunch may be the only reliable meal of the day

• It should also be obvious to everyone that lower income people who use WIC or Food Stamps are 'undesirable'.

Unfortunately there are realities like security and rent and lack of scale that drive overhead and therefore the need for higher prices. And while I agree that this is a difficult problem, I don't have any brilliant ideas about how to fix it. And yes, ultimately it would be great to get to a point where welfare is not needed and indeed, does not encourage apathy among some people. Maybe providing temporary incentives to supermarkets and ramping down welfare programs over time could work. But we're talking about people and families in challenging situations who often struggle to put food on the table. Removing the means by which a lot of people are able to not be hungry FIRST and then hoping that the market will jump in and provide a solution will do nothing short-term (and maybe longer) other than eliminating the means to fulfill a basic need.

There also was a story last week about how the word “neighborhood” is being embraced by marketers looking to create stronger connections between communities and the retailers – even the chain retailers – that serve them.

Which led one MNB user to observe about one of the examples cited:

Applebee's has been using the term "neighborhood" for a long time. They used to call themselves a "Neighborhood Bar & Grill" and touted the slogan "Eating Good in the Neighborhood."

That slogan made for great fodder for a Boston area food critic a few years back when he remarked "If Applebee's is 'eating good in your neighborhood', it's time to move!"

I don't think the chain will ever be able to escape that quip in my mind!

On the subject of plastic bag usage, MNB user Glenda Rider wrote:

What about the plastic bags I get from Penney's, Macy's, Home Depot, Target, Walgreen's, Rite-Aid, and those that hold my produce, my delivered newspaper, and so on??? These contribute just as much to the landfill issues as the grocery store bags.

No argument here. It seems to me that it is important to think of new options in all these areas. (Though asking the newspaper guy to actually put the NY Times in the mailbox, as opposed to just flinging it in the general direction of the house, may be more than I can hope for…)

California reportedly is considering a plastic bag tax, which led MNB user Ron Pizur to write:

Who gets the 25 cents and has anyone tried to quantify the amount this would generate a year at current usage rates? I'm assuming the state will get it and it will be considered a tax, although no where have I seen the word tax used. I do notice that the California Bill would forbid local municipalities form imposing a 'fee', but again not labeled as a tax. I also find the use of the word fee odd, because to me that would imply there was some service being performed and I don't see the vendor supplying a bag as a service, at least not a 25 cent service.

I do understand the purpose is to reduce the use of plastic bags, but then why should the state benefit to the tune of 25 cents a bag? Why can't they create a system like the Northeast has with cans? Charge a deposit on the bag that could be returned when the bag is turned in for reuse or recycling. Boy would that create an industry in cleaning up litter.

Plastic bag companies, not surprisingly, object to the tax, as does MNB user Ellen Ornato:

Ironically, I agree with the plastics industry folks, even given what we sell for a living (reusable bags). The sea change in attitudes towards bringing your own bag is unfolding rapidly. People are doing the right things in HUGE numbers, voluntarily. Retailers are offering alternatives; people are bringing their own bags.

Folks are recycling their plastic bags because retailers are providing an easy way for them to do it. Change is happening.

Punitive, regressive taxes may work to make politicians look & feel good with their affluent donors but these quickly adopted regulations really hurt the people who can’t afford to pay (the poor & elderly). The jury’s out on the whole paper/plastic debate, too, and all of these regulations target plastic only.

Finally, the retailers could do their parts by training their employees, particularly baggers, to put more than two or three items in a bag and to avoid double-bagging.

Let’s give one regulation a chance to be implemented before layering another on there at the expense of consumers.

No argument here.

And while she didn’t ask for it, I’ll give Ellen’s company a plug – check them out at

There was a story last week about Hannaford deciding to stop advertising on a television station that it felt had been unfair in its coverage of the credit/debit card security breach that the company was dealing with, and I commented that this is “how it should be. News organizations aren’t supposed to care about the commercials (though they often do), and companies shouldn't support via advertising venues that they feel are unfair or inaccurate.”

Which prompted one MNB user to write:

I disagree. A company, particularly a public company, should support advertising venues that make sense from a business standpoint and ignore the news reporting. Otherwise they look as if they are attempting to censor free speech, and also are cutting off their nose to spite their face if that advertising was providing a proper return on the expense.

I don't think that there is anything censorious about deciding not to advertise in a certain venue. You just make choices about where you think your ads are most effective, and go from there…and there is nothing wrong with factoring in how a company covers your company.

From personal experience, I can tell you that I have often encouraged manufacturers to advertise elsewhere if they question whether the sometimes provocative coverage here on MNB is good for their companies. I have an opposing argument, of course – that my brand of punditry draws in readers, and that this is the best kind of environment in which to be seen (as opposed to more vanilla venue). But I don't hold it against anyone when they go elsewhere. And it certainly doesn’t feel like censorship.

By the way, on the subject of the security breach, another MNB user observed:

I have to say that Hannaford's is losing a bit of ground with me, I feel they're progressive in their field, but enough belly-aching already. They didn't handle it perfectly, it took weeks for them to at least send some type of note to their customers and even then they screamed victim. I understand that they were not wholly responsible, but if not for the news coverage it may have taken even longer for customers to know their cards had been compromised…it seemed a bit quiet over there in Scarborough for too long!

Finally, after reading MNB’s wine recommendation in “OffBeat” last Friday, MNB user Guy P. DiCenzo wrote:

Not that you don't have enough to do, but could you put your wine recommendations in an archive?

Tell you what. I’ll ask the folks at Webstop to look into it…and if there is a wine manufacturer/distributor out there that would like to sponsor it, send me an email and we’ll figure out an attractive package for you.

KC's View: