Thursday, October 21, 2010


Buy locally... at Walmart?

Gonzo-super-mega-chain Walmart[1] has recently announced that they will be buying more locally grown food and doing other things to support small- and mid-sized local farming:

Wal-Mart Stores announced a program on Thursday that focuses on sustainable agriculture among its suppliers as it tries to reduce its overall environmental impact.

The program is intended to put more locally grown food in Wal-Mart stores in the United States, invest in training and infrastructure for small and medium-size farmers, particularly in emerging markets, and begin to measure how efficiently large suppliers grow and get their produce into stores.

Advocates of environmentally sustainable farming said the announcement was significant because of Wal-Mart’s size and because it would give small farmers a chance at Wal-Mart’s business, but they questioned how local a $405 billion company with two million employees — more than the populations of Alaska, Wyoming and Vermont combined — could be.

Their U.S. goal for selling local food is quite modest: the company plans to double the percentage of locally grown produce it sells to 9 percent. Given how much food they sell, that’s a lot of local food. On the other hand, as the article points out, they’re shooting much higher in other countries, such as Canada.

But the question of how local such a large company can be doesn’t really seem the right one. If they set out to do it, they could easily have stores find their own, local suppliers for meats and produce, and their size would only help them there. Of course, since they define local as within the same state, there’s quite a difference between a store in California or Texas and a store in Rhode Island or Delaware.

Also, a store in California could easily buy a lot of its produce from California growers, but how much local produce is available in Wyoming? Florida stores could buy local citrus, but not apples, with the reverse true in New York.

More to the point, maybe, is the extent to which people buying food at Walmart tend to buy packaged goods and prepared foods, rather than fresh meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables. If most folks aren’t buying fresh foods, then it’s bound to be hard for the company to increase its sales of local produce beyond a certain point.

All that aside, I think this is a good thing. I’d like to see the chain stores buying and selling a lot more local food. It’s silly to go into A&P or Stop & Shop in New York in October, and see apples from Washington. We have wonderful apples grown within a 30-minute drive of my house, yet the supermarkets have them shipped in from 3,000 miles away.

That needs to change, and if Walmart can take some steps in the right direction, that makes me happy.

[1] Or Wal-Mart if you prefer, as the New York Times does. Their store logos have been changed from Wal*Mart"= to "Walmart*, and their web site uses Walmart and everywhere except in the copyright line, which says © 2010 Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

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