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“The Egyptians have pyramids, the Chinese have a Great Wall, the British have immaculate lawns, the Germans have castles, the Dutch have canals, the Italians have grand churches. And Americans have shopping centers.”

– Kenneth T. Jackson

For the most part, American cities are riddled with shopping centers, chain stores and chain restaurants. In dissecting this issue, most social activists tend to rant on about the evils of large corporations. There are many facets to this phenomenon that can be traced to the grip corporations have over our nation. However, there are different angles to the role corporations play in this food fight and more complex reasons behind Americans’ love of chains and the prevalence of shopping centers, strip malls and box stores.

There is clearly a psyche behind American eating and shopping habits worth exploring. Americans do have a love affair with strip malls and chain stores. One reason that has been cited is that box stores are familiar. Shoppers need to know exactly what they are going to get or they cling to the hope that there is security in one bite at an unhealthy franchise in one city will taste exactly like another bite in another city. Secondly, American consumers are bargain hunters. In almost every employee cafeteria, one can overhear the prattle over where to get the cheapest ‘whatever’. Thirdly, Americans are in a hurry. Waiting in lines or waiting for anything will get the steam engines blowing gaskets all over the place. Sounds like I am down on American consumers. I am – in part, but it is not all their fault really. The angst against consumerism, the infiltration of our public spaces with corporate marketing and logos, short term thinking that drives our capitalist culture, the rat race of earning a wage to buy, buy, buy is enough to get any social activist up in arms with ample material to fill volumes on what is wrong with American society. For right now, we will focus on the aforementioned three reasons and leave the things that make you go ‘hmmmm’ to the readers for furthering pondering and perhaps self-exploration.
Eating and shopping at familiar places and the rise of American shopping centers and strip malls has been linked to the restlessness of American society and the tendency of Americans to continuously relocate. In his article on Why Americans Love Chain Stores, Eric Jaffe discusses the research done by a group of behavioral scientists led by Shigehiro Oishi at the University of Virginia. They concluded that the continuous mobility of Americans is rooted in the pursuit of more promising prospects. Along with that is a sense of independence and freedom behind this constant movement. However, it breeds a certain amount of anxiety, stress and continuous restlessness. It is this anxiety and restlessness that carries with it a concurrent urge for familiarity. There is something reassuring about the next meal or drink being the same from one city to the next. Whereas Oishi and his group cite American mobility being rooted in freedom and self-expression, I would argue that this need for familiarity exhibits less freedom and sense of self-expression. There are higher risks associated with eating at a local restaurant. Food, people, places and experiences will be different. Typically, American shoppers are not risk takers. If Americans were truly ‘free’, more local restaurants would be sought after and places like farmers markets would be patronized for their produce over a big box retailer, for instance. There are elements that shackle the American shopper and eater to box stores. The shackles I speak of are so embedded in our culture that they often go unnoticed.
Shopping at big box retailers or mega club stores for produce is proof that many Americans have lost the connection between what we eat and the source of our food. Americans want cheap food and shopping at large box stores or in wholesale ensures that we get bang for our buck. There is a critical disassociation between the value of time, energy and labor that goes into putting that turkey slice, cheese and tomato on that wheat wrap. It takes anywhere from three and a half to six months to raise a turkey, on average a couple months to a year to make cheese and about three months to grow a tomato. This does not take into account hatching times, germination or the actual time to process cheese. Nor does this include the labor or energy in harvesting, meat processing, packaging, transportation and storage. There is a huge disconnect between the actual value of our food and the price we are willing to pay. Americans are indeed bargain hunters. Let us delve a bit deeper into bargain eating. I propose that behind bargain hunting is a poverty or scarcity mentality worth exploring. Americans are lied to and told that there is not enough land or food to support our numbers. What is really happening is food is intentionally kept off the market to keep costs artificially high. Americans are forced to seek out bargains and continue to pay high prices for food. If we turned to local markets and local farmers, we would soon see the abundance of food and begin to build around us a more sustainable food system. Additionally, the ecological and social footprint of box stores and strip malls is confirmation that Americans are short term thinkers. Self takes precedence over the legacy we leave for our children to remedy the damage we are doing. A land stripped down for strip malls and box stores that are eventually vacated and torn down and sent to the dump and redeveloped into brand new shopping centers. Farm land is laid waste from mono-cropping year after year in order to produce higher yields. There is virtually no social engagement or relationship building in the way we eat or the way we shop. Bargain eating alone could open a Pandora’s box for any social activist to rant on. Nonetheless, let us move on to yet another topic that could become a Pandora’s box: our capitalist system and how it affects the way we eat.
Americans eat on the run. If there was a way to put a four course meal in a wrap or a sandwich, Americans would probably eat it. Throw a drive-thru in the deal and there is a business concept that could do quite well. The popularity of fast food in America is definitely connected to the fact that fast food is typically cheap. However, there are other factors that warrant further consideration. The average lunch break in the U.S. is 20 to 30 minutes. Roughly 65 per cent of Americans eat at their desk. Commute times force Americans to eat frozen foods or grab-n-go dinners. There is a total disconnect between time and food, enjoyment and social engagement over meal times. Americans eat in their cars, at their desk or in front of the television. A survey done by an insurance company, Malakoff Mederic in 2011 found that lunch break times fell to 22 minutes in France whereas decades before, an average lunch break was one and a half hours. Fast food eating is not just an American ‘thing’ anymore. It is a systemic problem that is now becoming a world-wide trend. Wage labor, consumerism, our built environment are all elements behind fast food eating. People are working longer hours to pay a mortgage and buy the newest or hottest trends. We are driven mad with constant buying due to the invasion of our homes, workplaces and public spaces with constant advertisements. Our cities are built for cars and suburban living leaving us with little options apart from staying in our cars to eat while getting from one point to the next.
Streets, cities and almost every little corner is slowly looking exactly the same across the nation. In almost every other country, cities have a unique feel. In America, one could not differentiate between one city to the next. Corporate logos are vomited all along our streets and highways and popping up like weeds in public parks. Four gas stations duke it out by the penny at each cross section right next to four competing pharmacies with only slightly different façades. Slowly, even small downtown centers are starting to put in smaller versions of box stores. Cities are giving into to the chain gangs and corporations have gone thug on almost every mom ‘n’ pop shop. Americans eat cheap, eat fast and eat what is familiar. We are slaves to systems that stay hidden and embedded in our culture. We can be free, break through and take risks or remain as we are and continue this path. Our current trajectory is self annihilation, obliteration of our social fabric and potential destruction of our planet. The alternative is to become more engaged with our people, our planet and our food.

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