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Wal-Mart Goes Local?


It’s true. As mentioned in a previous post, this summer corporate behemoth, Wal-Mart, is jumping on the “eat local” bandwagon. According to the state of Maine’s official website:

The Maine Potato Board, Wal-Mart Supercenters, Bushwick Potato Company, and Guerrette Farms have embarked on a campaign to bring the freshest tablestock potatoes to Maine consumers. Wal-Mart Supercenters across the state will feature ten-pound bags of potatoes with the “Get Real, Get Maine!” logo.

The irony of one of the largest, community-crushing corporations supporting local farmers is not lost on me. But over the last few years Walmart has made strides to clean up its act (or it’s bad image, which has at least some of the same impact as cleaning up its act) – donating money to charitable causes, and engaging in sustainability work. According to the Maine website, Wal-Mart’s Vice President of Produce, Ron McCormick could have been quoting a locavore activist when he said, “It’s important to Wal-Mart to support local growers…”

Maybe Wal-Mart has heard the siren call of the booming local foods movement, or maybe their head honchos’ hearts are in the right place. But do locavores really want Wal-Mart batting on their team?

walmart.jpgAs Michael Pollan and many others have indicated, Wal-Mart’s impact on the organics movement (they started selling organic produce in 2006) has made marginal progress on the front of making organics acceptable and available to the masses, and lots to encourage the watering down of the standards behind the organic stamp of approval.

Perhaps the local foods movement will prove to be more resilient than organic food. Afterall, there’s a certain amount of gritty grassroots, “grow-your-own” spirit infusing the movement, and you can’t exactly get away with selling New Zealand apples as locally grown in upstate New York.

But who gets to define what “local” means (100 miles? 500 miles? 1000?), and which farms will get all the support? Will Wal-Mart really benefit the small and mid-sized vegetable farmer growing a diverse bed of organic kale, corn, and bok choy, or will it toot its own horn for featuring one or two “local items” – potato, corn, and whatever it can get in large amounts for a reduced price from one or two large, conventional farms that happens to be within proximity of the Super Center?

Either way, what worries me is that, like the hulking, dim-witted but well-meaning Lennie in “Of Mice and Men,” who loves a poor little mouse to death, so Walmart’s embrace of local foods might bring more harm than good to the farmers it claims to support.

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7 Responses to “Wal-Mart Goes Local?”

  1. chiff0nade Says:

    Well I liked your post. But personally I would NEVER buy any food at Wal-Mart. They sell stuff from china which my boyfriend “Big Bear” will NOT allow into the trailer house.

    So I buy all of my food at Whole Foods. AND, they take food stamps without giving me a hassle about it.

    Big Bear and I eat really healthy because the government pays for it.

  2. Miss Mosquito Says:

    Wal-Mart puts local businesses out of work, it’s depressing and low quality. I would never buy anything there, let alone food.

  3. Food Rockz Man Says:

    This is a tough one . . . but I suspect that, as you suggested, the tendency of Wal-Mart will be to capitalize on the marketing aspect of “eat/buy local” without exhibiting a very deep commitment to supporting the movement. The important thing, in my view, is to push beyond the labels . . . any labels, whether it be in Wal-Mart or Whole Foods . . . to find out what you’re really buying. Pollan has really opened my eyes to the reality of what Whole Foods is selling: lots of factory farmed products that have been shipped across the country, if not half-way around the world, that happen to carry an “organic” label earned under a certification process that’s seemingly watered down with every passing year. Factory farmed organic is better for the environment and the workers in the fields than conventionally-farmed goods, but it’s not very sustainable. For these reasons, I do a lot of my shopping at local farmers markets, regardless of whether their food is certified organic, so I can talk to the farmers themselves . . . so I know exactly where their farms are and how they’ve grown the food . . . so I don’t have to rely on labels. Wal-Mart local and/or organic products may be a good gateway food source for folks who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to these concepts–and this is a good thing–but I hope for most people it’s not the end of the line for their evolution in eating.

  4. Maxine Says:

    This is a really interesting topic. I just can’t get behind anything to do with Walmart, even if they do claim to be supporting local agriculture. I don’t trust them and will not shop there. I like the idea of making sustainable eating more widespread, but I don’t think Walmart is the vehicle to do so. I agree with your “Lennie” analogy… there could be major repercussions.

  5. Leah Koenig Says:

    Hey Chiff0nade, Miss Mosquito, and Maxine – I would also have trouble buying things from Wal-Mart even despite the “tshuvah” (repentance) work they’re doing. Luckily, there aren’t any (yet) where I live in Brooklyn.

    It’s a good point Food Rockz Man – farmers markets are the way to go if you want to get beyond labels and really get to know who grows your food.

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