Apr 25, 2010 Neil Brody Miller Uncategorized
A number of developments have gotten me thinking about the Buy Local and Slow Food movements, and how transformative a real commitment to these movements will be. First, I filed the DBA for my new business, TheVillageSquared.com, which is still several months away from being launched but which personally and professionally marks an important turning point. In all likelihood it signals the end of my academic career as a college professor, or at least an end to the expectation of finding a full-time teaching position, and a return to an earlier status as a business owner and entrepreneur. My ambivalence about this realization, however, is offset by the hope that it will also mean stability and independence after eight years as an itinerant educator, and a firmer foundation for putting down permanent roots in Central New York.
I also started reading Michael H. Shuman’s “The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses are Beating the Global Competition,” which is an important book for understanding the challenges of community-based economics. And I’ve been thinking about joining a Community Supported Agriculture, which for a middle-aged bachelor long habituated to eating out rather than cooking at home, is not as simple a decision as it may sound. Will I really make and keep a commitment to consume all the fresh food delivered weekly? Will I be paying for produce I won’t eat, or worse yet, throwing away food I failed to consume? Will the moral good of supporting local farming be offset by the moral harm of wasting food?
All these issues came together over breakfast at the Red & White Cafe in DeRuyter. As I reached to pay the bill, I grabbed automatically for my plastic debit card, which over the past few years has virtually replaced my use of cash. In fact, I often go for weeks nowadays without a dollar in my pocket. I stopped, however, and thought a bit about the consequences of my actions. Paying for my meal with the debit card meant that Mastercard was going to take somewhere around 3 percent of the total bill, or around 30 cents, in fees and charges, which would come out of Chris’s, the owner of the Red & White Cafe, pocket and profits.
A short conversation with Chris brought home the economics of this issue. We quickly calculated that she serves about 500 customers a week, which at roughly $10 per customer works out to $5,000 a week. Which means that Chris pays around $150 a week in credit card fees, or somewhere around $8,000 a year in lost income and profit. That may not be enough to make-or-break her business, but it is certainly enough to prevent her from purchasing a major new appliance, or from taking a much-needed vacation. So in terms of its effect on the local economy, the use of a debit card to pay for my breakfast could, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil, metaphorically set off a tornado in Texas.
All this may seem like a lot of deep thinking for a Sunday morning breakfast, but supporting a community-based economy, I am beginning to realize, is not simply a matter of purchasing locally grown farm products. At the very least, today’s meal got me thinking about the supposed convenience of carrying plastic, which, like the convenience of purchasing produce at the local supermarket without any thought of where it came from and how it got there, comes with significant hidden costs. Which is why I say that supporting the local economy will be transformative and require me to change entrenched habits. If you love a local business, pay in cash!
Neil Brody Miller teaches American History at Onondaga Community College and is the author of StressingtheVine.com, a blog on Central New York wine, food, art and culture.