Walmart has retail operations in 15 countries. In 2010, the company had sales of $405 billion and employed nearly 2 million people. Many know Walmart for cheap prices on clothes, housewares, and electronics—but the chain is also the world's largest grocer. This means that Walmart yields serious purchasing power.
Last week, Walmart announced that they intend to double the sale of local produce in their stores by 2015. This goal is part of a larger sustainability project, which includes efforts at reducing energy expenditure and greenhouse gas emissions from stores and warehouses. The company's press release stated that this increase in local sourcing would mean more than $1 billion in trade with "small and medium farmers," as well as increasing the income of said farmers by 10 to 15 percent. The company defines "local" produce as that which is produced within state lines.
If Walmart is serious about ramping up their local purchasing, each store could have a huge impact on its state's agricultural community. Farmers' markets, CSA programs and other local initiatives are helpful for farmers, but larger-scale purchases are also required to get a farm through the growing season. And if buying produce from within the state could reduce food miles for each Walmart storefront, the cumulative impact could be huge.
But there are a few issues with the new plan.
First, doubling local purchasing would mean that only 9% of American stores' produce would originate within the state. Certainly 9% is better than 4.5%, but still doesn't ooze enthusiasm for interstate vegetable trade. Additionally, the targets set forth by Walmart are vaguely worded and leave plenty of room for loopholes. For instance, the store's website reads that Walmart will "[encourage] farmers to reintroduce crops that were traditionally farmed in their region." Heritage crops are certainly the way of the future, but unless Wal-Mart provides seeds or economic incentive to farmers, this "encouragement" will fall flat.
Critics also call into question whether the Walmart model necessarily demeans the value of the "local" label. Sure, your broccoli may share your hometown—but do you know the farmer who grew it? Local agriculture activists place heavy emphasis on the community growth as well as the economic stimulus provided through channels such as farmers' markets. Buying local from Walmart can't mean as much as shaking the hand of your farmer.
As of yet, there are few details on how exactly Walmart plans to implement this Heritage Agriculture program. If they follow through on their goals, there is no doubt that small-scale farmers could benefit from Walmart's large pockets. But as with many corporation sustainability initiatives, this could be a bunch of fluff.
What's your hunch, eaters? Do you support the new plan, or should Walmart stick to their current purchasing?
About the author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves consuming and learning about as much food as possible. She blogs at Feasting on Providence.