Feb 28, 2010 (Since I originally posted this I have read Joel Salatin's piece in Flavor Magazine on trying to learn lessons from the big box stores. One of his comments... we need an independent store in a high traffic area.. "preferably next to a Walmart." He also talks about the need for an attached dinner or large food processing kitchen to reduce food waste. Check out Joel's thoughts on the subject in the February/March issue of Flavor. I agree with his ideas for moving the sustainable food movement forward. His model, properly executed, could be just the sort of independent support our local food systems need.)
First it was organic produce and now local. It appears that Walmart has been hard at work not only acquiring locally grown foods, but trying to recreate the diverse, small farm system that insured a variety of locally grown foods in the days before Big Ag. Our Friend Anne with the Richmond Area Food System council sent us this article from the Atlantic magazine. Speaking as someone who has set foot in a Walmart exactly once in the last nine years, I have to say I am skeptical about the good that can come of this. Truthfully, my paltry knowledge of Walmart comes strictly from the occasional news story on the radio or television (although there have been quite a lot of those stories for me to hear, and from the anecdotal comments sometimes made by individuals a few decades older than me who have their own sense of how Walmart has changed as a company and changed the world around us.
It seems that Walmarts efforts on the local food front front have the potential to make a world of difference to small farmers trying to find a market for their produce. Perhaps, however, the creation of whole farming communities that depend upon Walmart for their survival is less than ideal. Walmart grew to be know for a long list of negatives including the undoing of many, small and medium sized businesses. The Walmart that so many have come to demonize in part for doing in 'Main street' is the same company that made a name for itself as a major supporter of "Made in the Usa." Walmart became a behemoth, and changed it's purchasing practices. Companies that didn't sell to Walmart found it hard to compete, and many who did found the low prices Walmart demanded forced them to change the way they ran their own businesses. Often this pressure to create goods ever more cheaply forced even Walmart's suppliers out of business.
In the end, it is not just an issue for me of Walmart's own record, but of the potential for one corporate entity to yield so much power over our local food systems. Perhaps this is the answer to some small farmer's prayers, or maybe it's just an easier answer that will prevent the independent creation of local food systems. It seems that a fundamental issue consistently raised about our current food system is a lack of independence for the farmer. It could be very good news if Walmart does become successful in encouraging greater regional diversity, small producers, and efficient distribution of their goods. At the same time my first, uneducated thought is of the potential costs resulting from a local food system overly dependent upon one very large corporate entity. I think I need to do some more research, maybe even go to a Walmart.