Wal-Mart and Local Food

LocalHarvest provides an interesting take on Wal-Mart latest initiative to buy more local produce, with a goal of 9% of the produce in its U.S. stores being from local (within the state of a given store) sources by 2015. The company also plans to provide training to over one million farmers and farm workers in crop selection and sustainable practices.

Here’s LocalHarvest’s take, from their latest email newsletter:

In college I dated someone whose response to ambiguous news was always, “Who’s to say what is good and what is bad?” At 22 I thought myself an excellent judge of the good and the bad. Needless to say, the relationship didn’t last. I have thought of his question often over the years, though, and it came back to me last week when I read the New York Times article describing Walmart’s decision to make a major investment in local and sustainable foods.

On one hand, the thought of Walmart sticking its gigantic foot in the local food door seems potentially ruinous. The company is known for setting extremely low prices with its suppliers, and the margins on real food are already achingly slim. Would contracts with Walmart actually help farmers, or ultimately hurt them?

On the other hand, Walmart is going to get its apples and broccoli and onions from somewhere. It might as well be close to home, with some type of sustainable practices. Decentralizing food production is a good idea. If the planet’s biggest grocer turns sustained attention toward buying a significant amount of local food (which, according to the Times, they define as within the state) they could do a great deal to encourage the establishment and growth of mid-sized farms across the country. That would be a good thing.

Walmart may be able to procure foods grown within certain geographic boundaries, but for many of us, local food means more than that. For me, “local food” is a kind of shorthand for an entire ethic. In this ethic, food is produced under quality conditions, on a scale that feels human rather than corporate, by people whose focus is on natural resource stewardship as much as it is on the bottom line, in a business whose owners do right by their employees. On the consumer side of this ethic, the food is purchased, prepared and eaten with awareness of its true value.

All week I have been thinking about what single word would capture the feeling behind this ideal. The word I came up with was ‘kindness’. In my estimation, there is a broad, radical kindness that underlies the emerging alternative food economy, which ultimately is an economy based on relationship. It is hard for me to imagine that kindness and relationships are at the heart of the megastore’s buy local campaign. But it is also hard for me to imagine a future without grocery store chains. I fully expect that the groundswell of support for authentic food and small farmers will continue to grow and flourish. If, alongside it, the nation’s grocers begin engaging local farmers in their response to consumer demand for higher quality food, and if farmers are able to get fair prices, that would also be a good thing.

Is the fact that Wal-Mart will be purchasing more food locally, and reducing green house gas emissions in the process, a good thing? As LocalHarvest discusses, that’s an interesting question.

At Friends of Boulder Knoll, however, we believe that food is about more than the lettuce you pick or the potato you dig up. Food is about making connections. It’s about education, about learning where food comes from and how it is grown. It’s about people: the farmer and the consumer, not a brightly lit grocery store aisle.

We urge you to come out to the farm and find out what we’re all about. In the meanwhile, please share your thoughts on Wal-Mart’s latest move, and about what this means for the local food movement.

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