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Cracker Barrel: Keep it local

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We’ve all heard the suggestion about keeping things local, “things” meaning your shopping, your place of worship, the school your kids or grandkids attend, and so on.

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The idea, at least on the surface, seems to make sense. If enough of us make it a point to buy our groceries or gas or other goodies close to home, sufficient commerce results to keep many of us locally employed. Folks with steady jobs are apt to pay property taxes, contribute to worthy causes, do volunteer work, and generally fill the role of good citizens.

But there are flaws in the argument, too. Many small towns can’t offer all the goods and services modern consumers want. And given the merciless competition from big-box chains, items in smaller stores may seem overpriced.

To find out whether or not it pays to keep things local, we need to establish the true cost of things. A starting point here is to consider what it takes to move yourself from point A to point B.

For many years the IRS has made an annual study of the fixed and variable costs of operating an automobile. Beginning on Jan. 1 of this year, their calculation of the standard mileage rates for the use of a car, van, pickup, or panel truck is 56 cents per mile for business miles driven. The actual cost of operating a given vehicle may be higher or lower than this average, but when you consider all factors, including initial cost, maintenance, fuel, tires, insurance, garaging, etc., it’s easy to see how the costs mount up.

Taking, say, a round-figure cost of 50 cents per mile, we begin to move closer to establishing the true cost of shopping away from home as opposed to staying local. Since any trip involves both going out and coming back, we have a simple estimate of $1 per mile of distance from home.

But this is only part of the picture. As many thoughtful critics have pointed out, our culture steadily refuses to reckon with the long-range social and environmental costs of living the way we do.

When consideration is given to things like climate change, the medical and cleanup costs incurred from air and water pollution, the annual deaths of 30,000 to 35,000 citizens from traffic accidents, and the relentless stress that results from our near-total dependence on the automobile, the true price tag of motoring ourselves around grows much larger.

Which is not to argue that automobiles should be abandoned. In a nation as large and spread out as ours, the widespread adoption of mass transportation schemes seems unlikely. The car — or some other form of personal motorized conveyance — is here to stay, especially for those of us who choose a rural life.

What does make sense is to take a more informed look at how and where we purchase the things we need and, wherever possible, seek sources close to home.

Why buy produce and meat grown thousands of miles away if we can get them from farmers nearby?

Why drive to regional shopping centers — at a cost of $20, $40 or $60 a trip — to save a handful of bucks in return?

Each of us will have a different take on what seems economical. But for our lives to be lived as happily and safely and cleanly as possible, I for one believe a sensible strategy is to seek what we need as close as we can to home.

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