Walmart Local and Sustainable? Let’s Ask

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Last month Walmart announced a $1 billion initiative to source produce from 1 million small and medium farmers, which the behemoth says will increase their income by 10 to 15 percent. Walmart’s plan is to offer their customers more locally raised food as part of their corporate sustainability effort. This news has obviously created quite a buzz among supporters, skeptics, and the mainstream media. (You can tap some of it here, here, here, and here.)

As usual, Walmart has been silent in this discussion. Like every other major corporation, it totally controls the release of info and manages its spin; you see controlled quotes from anonymous spokespeople, or canned interviews, but candor is not happening. But now that we’re living in a de facto corporatocracy, maybe it’s time our rulers were held a bit more accountable, not only to their stockholders but to their customers, and to those affected by their decisions.  

Here are a few things we’d like to know about Walmart’s new effort; feel free to add to the list, and, in a week or two, we’ll send it along (probably to someone who’ll proceed to ignore us):  

How do you define “local”? 

Will your local suppliers—and their workers—be treated with respect and paid full value for their produce? 

How will you value the produce itself, by quality or by volume? 

Will your initiative put any farmers out of business? 

How open will you be about this process? How will we be able to chart your progress?

(Photo Credit: mjb84 via Flickr)

Posted in Food Politics

18 Comments

  1. Alex M. Pruteanu said...

    Will you be extending your business only to local farmers who use Monsanto seeds?

  2. avehlert said...

    I’m curious as to whether Walmart will apply their old produce quality standards to local suppliers or adopt something more appropriate. If they do change their standards, I wonder if they expect to diversify their produce departments by purchasing more variety.

  3. Patsy Simpson said...

    Is this really just a poorly disguised effort to eliminate the distributors in their quest for increased income?

  4. Milehimama said...

    I wrote about this last week, too.http://www.milehimama.com/2010/11/04/walmart-local-farms-and-sustainability/Walmart defines "local" as "within the same state". Their sustainability initiative is concentrated on three agricultural areas in the East/South, and it’s unclear how it will affect farmers in the west- it could make West Coast Walmarts carry less local produce.I’ve sent many questions to my contacts at Walmart corporate – they are familiar with my blog- but haven’t gotten a response yet. I’m not sure Monsanto’s GMO seeds will come into play, because we’re talking about fresh produce (apples, potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce…) not commodity corn and soy.

  5. MealMixer said...

    Wal*Mart’s produce is awful. They need to hire people who know about produce.

  6. vadoug said...

    How about this? If you don’t approve of the quality, price, or source of Wal-Mart produce, then don’t buy Wal-Mart produce. That’s accountability to customers. Bravo to Wal-Mart for not wasting time debating with the whiners, who will only be satisfied when everyone is forced to buy their produce from farmers stalls at Ye Olde Village Faire.

  7. Julie Anne Rhodes said...

    Will produce be labeled local, or will a few local apples just be bait to make us think everything we are buying is local?

  8. Walmartnews said...

    Hi, my name is Kory Lundberg, sr. manager of sustainability communications at Walmart. Thanks for the great questions – this post is going to get pretty long, but hopefully this will help with your questions (if it doesn’t, let me know). LOCALLY GROWN – In the US, locally grown is produce grown and sold in the same state. However, with our number of stores and distribution centers, this number is often under reported because of the amount of produce that has the advantage of being grown closer to home…regional agriculture can be equally important, but may cross state lines. TREATMENT OF SUPPLIERS – Yes our suppliers and their workers will be treated with respect and offered a fair price. For example, in the emerging markets where Walmart has store operations, we will source more directly from our growers, enabling them to receive more income for the products they grow and sell. PRODUCE VOLUME – It’s actually both. Walmart already has strict quality guidelines for the produce it sells in its stores around the world and that won’t change with these new commitments. In order to meet our goal of doubling the amount of locally grown produce we sell in the U.S., volume will be one of the main metrics we use to track our progress. FARMERS – No, this won’t. In order to double the amount of locally grown produce we sell in the U.S., we will have to both increase the amount of produce we source from our current growers as well as source from additional growers. The $1 billion from 1 million farmer goal is for the emerging markets where Walmart operates. To reach these goals, it will require Walmart to source from more growers that it does now. TRANSPARENCY – We will report progress on all of our sustainable agriculture goals through our Global Sustainability Report (http://walmarturl.com/bW0K38 – beginning on page 32). This is the same process we use for reporting progress on all of our goals. However, I would love to hear what ideas you and your readers have for reporting. SEEDS – This will not be limited to any one seed producer. STANDARDS – We have had a locally grown program in the US for several years, and will continue to use our established standards as we double this program by the end of 2015. We are sharing with our local growers what produce customers are buying in their area. My favorite example is jalapeno peppers. A couple of years ago, we sourced peppers from Florida, California and Mexico. After a pilot program with growers in several states to grow jalapenos, we are now sourcing these peppers from 20 states includes some you wouldn’t think of like Iowa, Pennsylvania and Michigan. This helps growers sell more produce to Walmart and helps Walmart get fresher, lower cost (cuts down on shipping expenses) peppers on its shelf. DISTRIBUTION – We still need to move produce from the field to our shelves, so distribution remains very important. This is about reducing the distance and time needed to transport produce. LABEL – Locally grown will be labeled to help customers who want to buy locally.This turned out longer than I thought it would, but hopefully this is helpful. If you have other questions, let me know – kory.lundberg@wal-mart.com

  9. ecobabe2 said...

    @vadoug — And for those who don’t have another option in their area because Walmart drove all the small, locally-owned businesses out when they moved in? How would you have them be accountable for their actions other than "whining" to Walmart about improving the sourcing and/or quality of their products? To exercise choice as a consumer, there has to BE a choice. For much of rural America there isn’t much of one any more. It’s also not "whining" to ask that Walmart explain exactly how they’re going to define their terms, plan to achieve their goals, and provide evidence that they’re doing so. Or do you not think that large corporations will greenwash their activities for profit?

  10. Alex M. Pruteanu said...

    That’s quite nice of Kory L to address these issues, and we do appreciate it. You can understand some of our concerns, given the track record that Walmart has had, eviscerating businesses and eliminating competition. Some of us know full well and understand that the aim of a multinational corporation is not to have competition, and so you can understand our skepticism.Speaking personally, and having a bit more of an "insider’s information" from the farmers’ point of view, what has happened in the past with local farmers and Walmart has been this: first the local farmer agrees to supply to Walmart. Next, Walmart demands or requires so much product, that the farmer basically supplied EVERYTHING the farm produces to Walmart (seems like a good thing). After some time, Walmart starts tinkering with prices paid out to the farmer. Or with amounts of supply. Often times it lowers the amounts incrementally until the farmer is put out of business.We continue to educate ourselves and remain vigilant. We understand the huge business that is "Green" but we are also aware of the huge business that can be brought in from "greenwashing." On the flip side, corporations like Walmart, their history and tactics aside, are the only ones with the financial muscle to "right the ship." And so we wait and see what your decisions are, and what your true intent is–knowing full well the only thing that matters is the bottom line for your shareholders. But maybe the bottom line can be increased by actually doing the right thing.Thanks for your responses.

  11. Emily Kikue Frank said...

    I don’t know if this is true or not, but someone at my farmers’ market told me this week that the new organic standards mean that certified organic products must be traceable to the farm of origin. Surely that has a potentially big impact on Walmart if it’s true. Anyone have insight?

  12. vadoug said...

    ecobabe2, the only way Walmart can "drive out" competition is by offering superior products and services at prices people find attractive. Or do you ecobabes believe that rural Americans are such uncultured idiots that they can’t tell good products from inferior ones, or high prices from low? As for asking for information about Walmart’s products and services, millions of Americans do that every day. If they don’t hear what they like, they don’t buy. Gadflies and greenies can buzz around the periphery, but I suspect Walmart will, quite rightly, listen to its customers, shareholders, employees, suppliers, and contractors – that is, its true stakeholders – before turning to lower-priority questioners. And that’s as it should be.

  13. Milehimama said...

    Oh, vadoug, I think you fundamentally misjudge Walmart’s marketing stategy. The goal is not to offer superior products -that’s laughable. It’s to undercut prices, then gain enough marketshare that they can raise them again.

  14. Juli Borst said...

    Dear Mr. Bittman,This isn’t Walmart related, but it is sustainability related. Like you, I am still an omnivore, but have cut my meat consumption. Learning to cook better is a big part of learning to like whole foods.My reasons for cutting down on meat (and more recently dairy) are a little different than yours, though. I’m all about the packaging. I sometimes write a blog called PlasticLessNYC, and have been actively reducing my use of single-use plastic for the past couple of years. I don’t have to tell you about the environmental and health problems associated with plastic, plastic pollution, and the myriad of chemicals plastic contains. From your tips to avoid BPA in The Food Matters Cook Book, you already know.I would really, really love it if you would spend some time going single use plastic-free with your cooking- or as plastic-free as possible. Cooking like Food Matters already cuts down a lot- whole and seasonal foods come with less packaging; less meat and dairy means less packaging as well. But it would be great to see (and for your readers to see!) you go farther.For example, can you work around recipes that say ‘cover in plastic wrap’? How about ones where plastic wrapped foods go in a microwave? What are alternatives to ziplock baggies, or ingredients that traditionally come wrapped in plastic- say, cheese or sun dried tomatoes? Keeping track of plastic use as you cook for a period of time will show you where the challenges lie.I have yet to see a cookbook that takes plastic completely out of the recipes. Maybe it doesn’t really need a whole book, but some attention from a high profile cookbook author would go a long, long way.How about it?Sincerely,Juli Borst

  15. Alex M. Pruteanu said...

    Sorry to have to say this but either @vadoug is a WalMart plant, trolling the Internets, or there’s something missing up in ye olde grey matter. To equate Walmart with "quality products" is beyond obtuse. Everything else that comes after that assertion is more than suspect, and just marketing drivel. And bad one, at that.

  16. vadoug said...

    As usual, the highly educated sophisticates who read the New York Times just can’t get their heads around the idea that those hopeless rubes who shop at Walmart might – just might – be able to tell good produce from bad, and tasty local tomatoes from Mexican hardballs, and above all, know how best to spend their own money without the assistance of greenie food policemen from the big city. Take a trip on out to the country and talk to a few of those ol’ boys with the John Deere hats. They might actually know a thing or two about a thing or two.

  17. ecobabe2 said...

    @ vadoug — wow, it’s really refreshing that you don’t resort to stereotypes while complaining about others and the stereotypes they adhere to. And at least we can all agree that there’s nothing worse than being "highly educated".For the record, my cousin lives in a rural area and used to work at a Walmart. And my father lives in a rural area where Walmart is the only major source of goods for more than 15 miles. So it just might be that I actually know a thing or two about a thing or two about Walmart just from talking to and visiting them.

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