Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The evil empire comes home to roost

What do we think about Wal-Mart's new campaign to buy local? Personally, I find it to be an interesting occurrence. While the myriad positive benefits of buying locally produced farm products has been getting lots of press over the last few years, it really took a market shift in the transportation industry to affect larger change. No, all problems with the food system are not solved by Wal-Mart deciding to buy more locally and to heavily publicize the practice, but it is an interesting case-study for those of us interested in relocalizing the food system. This new development spurs many questions in my head: what is their definition of local? What kind of buying practices and ethics are they using when dealing with local farmers? Who is benefiting from the partnership? Etc. etc. etc. It also forces people involved in the industry to reevaluate what factors drive change and whether or not the system can work from the bottom up instead of the top down.

In the past, there have been barriers between locally grown and Wal-Mart. Traditionally, Wal-Mart has been associated with blue-collar "peanut-butter and jelly" people, while locally grown is often associated with either white-collar "foie gras" types or no-collar "wheat-grass and granola" folks. Breaking down these divisions is part of what we do at Cascade Harvest Coalition, but it's been a tough road to convince people to spend more money based on health and ideology. Now, with Wal-Mart "joining" the cause, the argument shifts toward better economic value, i.e. it's cheaper for the consumers. See, we've been pushing the other side of that argument for years, i.e. it's more profitable for the farmers, but, in general, people are much less likely to give more but they love to spend less, even if the end result is the same. If that makes sense. So, for us it's been an uphill slog to try and educate consumers about the benefits of buying locally, when really the driver for change is lower price. Or at least perceived lower price.

So, this discussion begs the question: if you do something right for the wrong reasons...should it still be considered right? Wal-Mart has started sourcing more locally grown produce, but not to benefit the farmer, or to build healthier communities, or for many of the other benefits. It has started sourcing more locally grown produce because it might/will save money on transportation costs and because it can spin out a shiny, new marketing campaign. Surprisingly, those two reasons are not on the 10 Reasons to Buy Your Food from Regional Family Farms.

In fact, with Wal-Mart entering the game, many of those reasons may be corrupted or at least bent in the wrong direction. For instance, one of the most overlooked, yet important reasons for buying from local family farms is that locally grown food protects genetic diversity. Wal-Mart requires buys huge amounts of one, single product to help keep its prices down. Well, that does not promote genetic diversity.

Or the reason that locally grown food is fresher and tastes better. Wal-Mart may buy more locally grown produce, but that doesn't mean that it's putting it out on the shelves any faster than it was previously. Most of the local product will probably be shipped to a distribution center where it will wallow and wilt until called upon by some Supercenter.

On the flip side, though, any good change, no matter the package, is good change, right? Wal-Mart is a huge company with lots of stores, money and employees. If it decides to reduce transportation and buy locally...they're reducing transportation and buying locally! Maybe this is the shift that we've been looking for: to bridge that gap between traditional Wal-Mart customers and traditional Locally Grown customers.

For now, it's a "wait-and-see" period. There are too many factors to predict just how this announcement will affect the system. And, like most everything, it will not be a simple "good/bad" evaluation...there will be quite a bit of gray area. The key thing will be to stay on top of the news and to ferret out more information about the proposal, so as not to let Wal-Mart simply push one past us. But we also must not maintain an elitist front. Somewhere in the middle shall we stand, with the wishes of farmers and consumers driving us onward.


PS Congratulations to The Evergreen State College Organic Farm on becoming certified Salmon Safe!

Article roll-call:

Consumers can drive sustainable change

Can Changes in Physical Environment Cause Changes in Attitudes and Perceptions?

Walmart goes local?

Index of Locally Sourced Wal-mart

Fields of Fuel

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