Walmart: The Newest Champion of Local Food?

The Atlantic Monthly

So here's a dilemma for a principled locavore: Walmart, long considered the enemy-in-chief of mom and pop shops and small, unique economies, is now positioned, by virtue of its sheer size and a new local initiative, to do a large amount of good for regional farms and local eating. What do you do? Vote for local food with your dollars, and shop at Walmart? Or do you still avoid this corporate giant at all costs? This is the dilemma considered this month by Corby Kummer of The Atlantic.

Scorn and loathing of Walmart is de rigueur among politically correct food-lovers. The big-box chain's domination of small local areas and their influence upon local economies has been documented and duly noted. We find them just too large and glaring, and quite frankly, we're too lazy to walk across their absolutely enormous parking lot! We have also looked askance at their practices of sourcing food from all over the world. (Although, to be fair, Walmart is not much different in this respect than other large grocery chains, and the whole issue of where our food comes from is much more complex than just the simplistic food mileage numbers stamped on some organic packages these days. We'll leave that topic for some other time!)

But how much of this Walmart hatred is based in assumptions (and let's face it, class-based prejudices)? Corby Kummer confronts these questions directly, after he learns about a new program from Walmart that is designed to encourage truly local agriculture. He says that he...

...found that its produce-buying had evolved beyond organics, to a virtually unknown program—one that could do more to encourage small and medium-size American farms than any number of well-meaning nonprofits, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with its new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food campaign.

The program, which Walmart calls Heritage Agriculture, will encourage farms within a day’s drive of one of its warehouses to grow crops that now take days to arrive in trucks from states like Florida and California. In many cases the crops once flourished in the places where Walmart is encouraging their revival, but vanished because of Big Agriculture competition.


Kummer is at first extremely suspicious of this "initiative," which he suspects to be greenwashing. So he organizes a very scientific experiment. He buys two big sacks of food, one from Whole Foods, and one from Walmart. He gives the sacks to a kitchen of professional cooks, and then throws a dinner for some very environmentally correct cooks and food-lovers.

The results? Well, let's just say that Walmart does awfully well.

Overall, this is a fascinating article, written by a food-lover who shares a lot of the same prejudices that we do, and yet is open (cautiously!) to reconsidering them. We aren't quite ready to head to the suburbs and shop at Walmart yet, as we have great markets and co-ops in our neighborhood.

But this article is very hopeful and encouraging to us, as Walmart is often the only source of food in suburban and rural "food deserts." If they can bring organic and locally-grown food into these places, then that is something worth supporting. Yes, maybe they can be blamed for helping to create those food deserts to begin with. And yes, some of their business practices concern us. But their sheer size positions them to do much real and practical good.

It's a dilemma of the modern world, of food the way it is now, and we think that it is important to think about all the contradictions and complex issues of these modern ways of food. We'd love it if you read this article and came back here to talk about it — what did you think?

Read the article: The Great Grocery Smackdown by Corby Kummer at The Atlantic Monthly

Related: Wal-Mart Going Organic

(Image: Flickr member Brave New Films licensed for use under Creative Commons)