What If We Ran Grocery Stores Like Public Schools?

Public grocery stores in the old Soviet Union

by James A. Bacon

Imagine our food distribution system worked like our public schools do.  Prompted by that very question in a Reason article comparing how private schools are responding differently to the COVID-19 virus than public schools, I began thinking what a public grocery system would look like.

The food would be “free,” except for the fact that you would pay higher taxes to support the grocery store, and the tax dollars would be paid directly to the store. Key decisions, such as what food products to offer and how many grocery clerks were needed to staff the meat counter, would be made by an elected Grocery Board. A grocery superintendent answering to the board would hire and fire the grocery store managers.  If you didn’t like the store but still wanted “free” food, you would be out of luck. You would be assigned to your neighborhood grocery store. The Grocery Board would draw the grocery boundaries. What you ate would depend upon where you lived. Only higher income earners would have the luxury of foregoing the free food and shopping at stores that didn’t accept tax dollars.

What do you suppose would happen to the cost and quality of public food in such an arrangement? As the consumer, you would have zero power. You couldn’t patronize a different store. You couldn’t withhold your money. You would have to take what you got. Oh, for sure, you could show up at Grocery Board hearings and speak your mind. Maybe you could organize a movement to elect a board member who would go to bat for selling only free-range chicken. But that would entail a huge amount of trouble with no guarantee of a positive outcome.

In a system of public grocery stores, who would the Grocery Board members pay most attention to? The grocery stores’ internal constituencies, obviously. At the top of the list would be the union representing grocery workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). Not only would the UFCW wield the power to strike, it would deduct dues from the workers and channel donations to friendly Grocery Board members. Other powerful players would be grocery vendors. Food products companies selling everything from carbonated beverages to canned soups would lobby the Grocery Board to alter shelf-stocking regulations to ensure their products had greater visibility.

Just imagine how conflicting ideologies would play out. Suddenly, all manner of store-management decisions would become politicized. Militant groups (backed by local farmer co-ops) would emerge to demand that stores source all food locally. Vegan groups would hold demonstrations to halt the sale of meat. Nutrition zealots would lobby to ban the sale of salty snacks and soda pop. Instead of exercising the right to “vote with their dollars” and patronizing a grocery store to their liking, people would have to effect change through the political process.

A vast nonprofit superstructure would arise as foundations began funding activist groups to their liking. The nonprofits would crank out studies contending that the quality of food and service suffered because local governments weren’t spending enough on grocer wages. Newspapers would publish exposes on aging buildings, broken pipes, leaking roofs, and rat droppings found amongst the lettuces. State government would intervene, setting standards for the proper staffing of checkout clerks and for the square footage of shelf space dedicated to the produce section. 

Editorial writers would decry the manifest injustice that affluent Grocery Districts had enjoyed better quality and service than counterparts in poor districts. The federal government would get involved, sending federal tax dollars to grocery stores in poor neighborhoods. Academics would denounce the white bias in brand selections. Then the ACLU would file lawsuits contending that stores failed to set aside self space for ethnic Latino, African-American, and Asian foods in proportion to the minority groups’ share of the population. 

As grocery stores became a full-time preoccupation of the political class, there would be too much gridlock to enact business reforms — tighter inventory controls, supply-chain innovation, the introduction of new services — that might improve quality or drive down cost. People pining for the good old days of private grocery stores would be denounced for their selfishness. Think tanks would publish studies showing how private grocery stores competing for customers would “skim the cream,” taking the most profitable customers and exacerbating social inequities.

How would public groceries respond to the COVID-19 epidemic? The issue of whether to reopen the grocery stores, shut them down, or adopt a hybrid system would consume every grocery district. Predictably, members of the grocery unions would say they don’t feel safe. They would advocate shutting down the grocery stores, limiting sales to online pickup and delivery, until the epidemic subsided. If people starved, well, that’s their problem.

If you think this sounds like Virginia’s system of public education, yeah, that’s pretty much the point of this post. In the real world, we let the private sector run grocery stores. If we think there are gaps in the system — poor people can’t afford to eat — we give them food vouchers. We used to call those vouchers food stamps; now we call the, “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance.” If we think poor people aren’t getting enough leafy greens, nonprofits support targeted solutions such as community gardens in poor neighborhoods.

We all know that replicating the public education model for retail food distribution would be an unmitigated disaster. Maybe it’s time we asked, why can’t schools be more like grocery stores? What is more important: making sure that every child gets a decent education, or preserving one particular mechanism for providing that education?

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26 responses to “What If We Ran Grocery Stores Like Public Schools?”

  1. sherlockj Avatar

    On June 30, The New York Times published an interview by Dana Goldstein of Dr. Sean O’Leary, the author of the guidance provided by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It has had a significant effect on my own views toward school reopening. From that article:

    The American Academy of Pediatrics has a reputation as conservative and cautious, which is what you would expect from an organization devoted to protecting children’s health. But this week, the academy made a splash with advice about reopening schools that appears to be somewhat at odds with what administrators are hearing from some federal and state health officials.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, have advised that remote learning is the safest option. But the academy’s guidelines strongly recommend that students be “physically present in school” as much as possible, and emphasize that there are major health, social and educational risks to keeping children at home.

    Dr. Sean O’Leary, a pediatrics infectious disease specialist at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, helped write the academy’s guidelines. He is a father of two children, 12 and 16, and a survivor of Covid-19 who is still experiencing some symptoms after he and his wife contracted the coronavirus in March.

    “I absolutely take this seriously,” Dr. O’Leary said. “I’m still sick.” But he explained why the academy was emphasizing the need to get students back in classrooms.

    This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

    The academy guidelines place a big emphasis on the importance of physical school over remote learning. Can you summarize why?

    “As pediatricians, many of us have recognized already the impact that having schools closed even for a couple months had on children. At the same time, a lot of us are parents. We experienced our own kids doing online learning. There really wasn’t a lot of learning happening. Now we’re seeing studies documenting this. Kids being home led to increases in behavioral health problems. There were reports of increased rates of abuse.

    Of course, the reason they were at home was to help control the pandemic. But we know a lot more now than we did then, when schools first closed. We’re still learning more every day.

    This virus is different from most of the respiratory viruses we deal with every year. School-age kids clearly play a role in driving influenza rates within communities. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Covid-19. And it seems like in countries where they have reopened schools, it plays a much smaller role in driving spread of disease than we would expect.”

    Back in March, there was this idea of children as silent superspreaders who put older adults and other vulnerable people at immense risk. Has that picture changed?

    What we have seen so far in the literature — and anecdotally, as well — is that kids really do seem to be both less likely to catch the infection and less likely to spread the infection. It seems to be even more true for younger kids, under 10 or under 12. And older kids seem to play less of a role than adults.

    Here in Colorado, I’ve been following our state health department website very closely. They update data every day and include the outbreaks in the state they are investigating. As you can imagine, there are lots and lots in long-term care facilities and skilled nursing homes, some in restaurants and grocery stores. There have been a total of four in child care centers, and we do have a lot of child care centers open. In almost every one of those cases, transmission was between two adults. The kids in the centers are not spreading Covid-19. I’m hearing the same thing from other states, as well.

    Studies have shown that the abrupt switch to remote learning in the fall left many students behind and increased existing achievement gaps.

    The academy’s guidelines talk about balancing the need for physical distance with children’s educational and developmental needs, such as the need for hands-on play. They suggest that if older students are masked, three feet of distance between desks might be sufficient, compared to the six feet recommended by the C.D.C. Why is your advice different?

    I don’t know that we’re different. The C.D.C. said six feet if “feasible.” The point we are trying to make is, that’s really not feasible. When you consider the overall health of children and really the community at large, adhering to a six-foot rule, which would mean having a lot of kids at home, may not be in the best interest of overall health. Something has to give.

    From our perspective as pediatricians, the downsides of having kids at home versus in school are outweighed by the small incremental gain you would get from having kids six feet apart as opposed to five, four or three. When you add into that other mitigation measures like mask wearing, particularly for older kids, and frequent hand washing, you can bring the risk down.

    I do think it’s a balance. I’m not going to come out here and say on June 30 that everything is going to be perfect in the coming school year. There will be cases of Covid-19 in schools even where they make their best efforts. But we have to balance that with the overall health of children.

    As I talk to school administrators, most are planning temperature checks. The academy guidelines warn this could be impractical and take away instructional time. Can you say more about why you’re skeptical that this is the right strategy?

    Do the harms outweigh the benefits? In this case, if it means students are congregating, it could increase the risk of spread. And we don’t have great evidence that temperature screening is helpful. That’s for a couple reasons. One, a lot of kids who have Covid-19, perhaps the majority, never get a fever. To use fever as a screen and assume that’s going to be good enough? You will miss a kid. And many fevers are not going to be Covid-19. Kids should not go to a school with a fever, period.

    As you were preparing these guidelines, did the emergence of the potentially deadly pediatric inflammatory syndrome linked to Covid-19 sway you at all?

    We talked about it. It is by any measure a rare condition. And so it’s something we have to pay attention to and figure out what causes it and the best treatment. We should also point out that even those kids who have gotten very sick, the vast majority of them have recovered and done well.

    The guidelines emphasize that teachers and school staff members should stay physically distanced to the greatest extent possible and conduct meetings remotely. But I am hearing from a lot of teachers. Many are, frankly, scared to go back to school before a vaccine is available. A few have told me that they feel that their health is treated as expendable. What’s your message to them?

    We’re pediatricians. We’re not educators. We don’t want to tread in space where we don’t belong. But what I would say is it depends on the level of risk for the individual person. Every district I have talked to here in Colorado? They are making major considerations for their teachers, trying to figure out how to keep them safe.

    There are a couple of things we know now that we didn’t know when we closed schools down in March. One is that masks really do seem to work. They are very effective. Two, physical distancing works as well. If they are taking as many precautions as they can, I think the risk is pretty low.

    Some of these are very personal decisions. But schools can do a lot of things to really make the environment as safe as possible.

    What do you hope is next in terms of local schools making specific plans to reopen?

    How this gets rolled out in August or September when schools reopen is really dependent on what is going on at that time with the virus. If you’re in a state that is doing well with very few cases, all of the measures in the guidance are far less important. But if you’re in a place where the virus is raging, all of those things become much more important.

    As a country, we have to get on the same page. It’s a tragedy to me that the virus has become a political issue. It’s costing tens of thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands, of lives.

    Reopening schools is so important for the kids, but really for the entire community. So much of our world relies on kids being in school and parents being able to work. Trying to work from home with the kids home is disproportionately impacting women. So it goes beyond just the health of the child, which is, of course, very important. As a country, we should be doing everything we can right now, for lots of reasons, to make sure we can safely reopen schools in the fall.

  2. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Sweden and Finland compared notes. Sweden never closed schools, while Finland did. Four months later they had the same incidence of cases among school-age children, 0.05% (five cases per ten thousand.) The same. (What I read did not mention teachers….)

    1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

      How many black and Hispanic Swedes and Fins do you know? What’s the incidence of the known comorbidity conditions in those populations?

      How many Scandinavian babies have been born with Covid? Oh wait, that was a French baby. Oh well, nevertheless there goes another myth popular with Kerry. The other Kerry myth, broken by study results released this week… kids 10 to 19 DO INDEED transmit the disease just like adults.

      Speaking of the latest news… 800,000 dead by end of the year. Ooooh, that’ll close schools.

      For that matter, forget the Scandinavian aspect in that first question.

      1. Steve Haner Avatar
        Steve Haner

        Wow. Un-distilled fear porn.

        1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

          Hmmm, so to you, fear is any fact that counters your narrative?

        2. Nancy_Naive Avatar

          Whew, that was 800,000 worldwide, and only 250,000 in the US. That’s sooooo much better.

  3. djrippert Avatar

    “Editorial writers would decry the manifest injustice that affluent Grocery Districts had enjoyed better quality and service than counterparts in poor districts.”

    In an otherwise excellent post you missed with this. Should have been, “Editorial writers would decry the manifest injustice that people living in poor Grocery Districts experienced a higher level of obesity than people living in more affluent Grocery Districts despite the same (or more) tax money per resident being spent in poor Grocery Districts than wealthy Grocery Districts. Critics who pointed out that residents of poor Grocery Districts made worse food choices than residents of wealthy Grocery Districts would be shunned as racists. Healthy home cooked meals would be heralded as just another sign of “white privilege”. Statistics that demonstrated Asian-Americans are less obese than white Americans would be met with the kind of blank stare Joe Biden often demonstrates when asked a non-scripted question followed, after a while, by the blurting out of “systemic racism.”

  4. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead V

    About 20% of Virginia’s teachers are above the age of 55. 35% of Virginia’s teachers are above the age of 50. School leaders are going to need to factor in that there will be a surge of retirements. There will also be a higher than normal number of teachers who are not eligible for retirement but will seek a separation from employment for a variety of obvious reasons. It might not even be possible to staff schools at pre COVID levels due to these factors. 5 day a week in person instruction is probably not going to happen. I have doubts if they can pull off the alternating 2 day a week plan. Virtual is going to end up the choice most school districts are going to make. Superintendent Lane of the VDOE had better be paying attention to this. He has bigger fish to fry than protecting equity directors.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      Was reading a piece this morning making the point that when it comes to seasonal flu, children ARE the major spreaders and the schools are very dangerous places for kids and staff. Perhaps 600 school age kids died in the last flu pandemic, and it was an official epidemic, two years ago. Schools didn’t close then, but count on it, schools will now close for any outbreak of anything. And yes, many teachers will decide that virtual learning (no messy kids face to face and the computer doing the grading) is how they want to work going forward.

      I just finished a close read on the workplace rules (stand by tomorrow AM) and it would be easy to strike “COVID” and make it apply to any infectious disease, making workplace masking, no-contact transactions and other requirements permanent.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Pending a second comment on Sherlocks response, I would submit this thinking is why Libertarians do not get elected and Conservatives lose.

    Forget for a minute how many parents actually do “pay” for public schools.
    Go check your own property tax bill. For most folks it comes nowhere near to the cost of educating one child for one year to say nothing about those with more than one kid.

    So who is actually “paying” cuz it ain’t just the parents but apparently that has to be explained to libertarians and some Conservative types and really, for that matter liberals also.

    You have to go back to understand why we have public education to start with.

    Then you do need to understand why the developed countries in the world excel at public education and as a direct result have the highest percent of literacy and the strongest economies that are based on an educated workforce.

    And yes – we DO have say so – we elect people to represent us including school boards. And this goes right back to why Libertarians and Conservatives don’t get elected when they talk about public education in this way. Libertarians are dumb enough to say it out loud during a campaign – the GOP prefers to finesse it by talking about vouchers… but it’s the same message and if voters get a whiff of it – those candidates are done.

  6. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    As school boards try to determine the best course of action, whether to follow the guidelines of the AAP, CDC, or do something else, they may want to consider these just-released results from a large study done in South Korea, employing trace contacts of persons initially diagnosed with COVID: older kids (10-19) spread the coronavirus at the same rate as adults. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/18/health/coronavirus-children-schools.html

  7. Ichabob Avatar

    From AAP, 7/10/2020:

    “Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff. Science should drive decision-making on safely reopening schools. Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics. We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”


  8. CREGUY Avatar

    The danger for the public school monopoly is this: Let’s say that they give in to teachers and don’t open for the entire school year. `

    Parents with any means (including Black and Hispanic parents) are going to either go private or figure out this homeschooling thing (could be some hybrid with “pods”, etc.) After 17 months of this (March 2020 to August 2021), who’s going to actually send their kids back to public schools? I think people will be shocked. Smart people will find ways to adapt. At some point the adaptation becomes the norm. A lot of public schools will see massive enrollment declines. The teachers’ unions are cutting their own throats by demanding that they not go to in-person learning this year.

    Repeat after me: The adaptation will become the norm.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I agree but you’d never think that from all the catcalling going on. Before COVID19 – public schools and teachers were leftist scum. After COVID19 they are not only leftist scum still but even worse for not making that “leftist scum” education “available”.


      I actually do think, actually believe in disruptive innovation or whatever it’s formal name is.

      People are going to find ways to adapt and if the govt would pay for tutors on a means-tested basis – the economically disadvantaged may actually come out ahead.

      If we do not have enough space in the current public school facilities – then we do need to stand-up “pods” – satellite classrooms – perhaps even neighborhood classrooms in community centers, fire houses, churches, and other available buildings – where there is internet and staffed by para-educators and tutors directed by education professionals.

      What’s actually killing us is the indecision – caused by the science and politics.

      The ” open up now or we’re going raise hell crowd” needs to take a break (good luck on that) .

      This is actually a genuine opportunity to change the way the public schooling “works” – and to be honest -we currently stink to high heaven compared to other developed countries… we’re doing something wrong already even before COVID19.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead V

        Yes Mr. Larry! It is indeed the indecision of education leaders that hurts the most. My school board representative, Mrs. Pauling, is caught between two groups of parents. The superintendent is deflecting criticism to the school board. Mrs. Pauling is a super lady and I know she wants to get this right but will please no one in doing so.

  9. Eric the Half a Troll Avatar
    Eric the Half a Troll

    And what if our public school system was run like our grocery stores? As long as they weren’t killing the kids, the schools could do anything they like. In some areas, there would be no schools whatsoever and nobody would care. During Covid, teachers would be forced to expose themselves to the pandemic or face immediate replacement. The only necessary criteria for teaching students would be… oh that’s right, there would be none. One thing is true for both, the rich get the cream of the crop, the poor get the dregs.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    It’s a ludicrous comparison. People spend what 1/2 an hour or so in a store with a mask trying to keep their distance versus a classroom of 7-8 year olds for hours… and how many folks do we know that are going to keep that mask on once they leave the grocery store?

    If you’re going to compare why not a sports stadium or a church or other congregate setting where people are together for extended times and may not be wearing masks? Imagine a teacher spending all their time trying to get one or two kids who – just like some adults – won’t wear their masks?

    The basic problem here is that Conservatives just hate COVID19- because they have no control over it – so they basically “act up” like a brat. It has GOT to be somebody’s fault. They’re not happy – this should not be happening – and there’s hell to pay. It’s the common thread whether it’s Kerry or Bacon…

    The fact that most school systems are not convinced it is safe – is like a massive conspiracy of leftists and liberals who are doing this on purpose to piss off Conservatives…

    1. CREGUY Avatar

      I think Kerry and Bacon can be extreme, BUT…the problem I have with your argument is that the private schools where I live are all opening up 5 days/week. Sure, they may not have quite the teacher/student ratio as public schools, but….it’s not that big of a discrepancy. The local Catholic school has 18-20 kids in each elementary classroom. The public school may have 21 or 22, but the difference is not large enough to justify one opening up 5 days a week and the other going “all virtual.”

      It’s not a “conspiracy”, but it is the tail wagging the dog. School boards are giving in to teachers across Virginia while not listening to the voices of parents and students. What is the purpose of a public school division? To educate students or to ensure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a single employee will not contract COVID-19?

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead V

        Mr. CREGUY your school board is fibbing about class sizes. They factor in all classes. Remember a special education class or an English as a Second Language Learner class or even Mandarin Chinese are all small classes. This drives down the total class size that is advertised. The truth is your typical high school class size is going to range from 25 to 35 as high as the 40s.

    2. Nancy_Naive Avatar

      These are the same guys who decried that fluoridated water was a communist plot, Larry.

      Let’s wait for Steve’s brilliant opinion as suggest earlier.

  11. Top-GUN Avatar

    Nobody on any school board is representing me… Ignorant kids, no homework, lousy test scores. Education in this country is abysmal. Foreign countries are kicking American school board butt…
    We’ve lowered every standard we have, and when we hit bottom in a standard we write new ones with new plans to get better. Rinse and repeat. You can’t even compare today’s SAT scores to those of 30 years ago.
    Sad, Sad, Sad….

  12. LarrytheG Avatar

    common core did not go over so good…………

    1. CREGUY Avatar

      That’s a really good point. It didn’t seem to go over well with students or teachers, and it doesn’t look like it improved learning outcomes…

      I’m not really sure what is left to say about American public education. It’s clearly not working for the majority of American children. Make no mistake that our enormous class divide that’s developed over the past 25 years is due, in part, to the abysmal state of American public education and the failure of so many to grasp even the basic learning outcomes.

      I lean left on a number of issues, but on this issue, I’m open to charters and vouchers. We’ve heard a bazillion and one reasons for why public schools perform so poorly over the past 2 to 3 decades. And yes, we’ve seen certain governors and mayors pour extra resources into public schools at various times, and it hasn’t worked. In all honesty: Has there ever been so many resources poured into a public program with so few results as with American public education over that past 25 years? Doubtful.

      Spend public $ on roads. Spend public $ on health care. But, it’s about time we throw out the playbook and develop something better before pouring even more resources into a failing public education system.

  13. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    What a weird dystopian piece. Judging from your photo, you seem to be grasping for an amplify to Soviet food stores. Actually there were open air “markets”’where people from Central Asia and the Caucuses sold fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, honey and eggs. There were special food stores for foreigners. And you could always make an illegal deal with an state grocery to get special food out the back door for bribes. It was called buying “na levo” or “on the left.”

    1. So the Soviets had a food retail escape hatch — open air markets. Sounds like the equivalent of private schools.

  14. Atlas Rand Avatar
    Atlas Rand

    James, it really sounds like you were writing a description of the Libreta de Abastecimiento, or Cuban ration system.

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