Walmart - the new farmer's market?
    By Becky Jungbauer | October 5th 2009 10:19 AM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    A scientist and journalist by training, I enjoy all things science, especially science-related humor. My column title is a throwback to Jane


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    Can Walmart sell nutrition better than the U.S. government? Honestly, it might be able to, says agricultural trade policy analyst Sallie James in this NPR report.

    James says it's not economically feasible for the vast majority of Americans to buy and eat local foods, and it will be difficult not only to get many people within reasonable distance of a local market, but also to create enough production to feed America's 300-million-plus population.

    This is one of the problems we discussed in my public health classes that's stuck with me - you can promote healthy eating all you want, but if there isn't a way for people to get fresh produce and healthy food, what good is the educational campaign?

    Take inner city poor neighborhoods. A majority are on food stamps or WIC and are either working several jobs or taking care of kids and have to use public transportation. The convenience store on the corner sells processed foods, snacks, etc. You can either walk down the block and purchase these easy to make, cheap foods, or you can take off work or cart all of your kids on the bus for a trip across town to the Whole Foods, which you can't afford anyway. What are you going to do?

    Farmer's markets are a great way to involve the community and you feel better that you're supporting local folks. But farmer's markets aren't always readily available. I come from Minneapolis, where there's a farmer's market and food co-op on every corner. And when I lived in D.C. we could walk to a wonderful year-round farmer's market. But now I live outside Philadelphia, and the closest farmer's market is at least a 20 minute drive, it's not open year-round, and it's only open during work hours. (There is one that is open for a few short hours on Saturday, but I'd still have to drive a long way, and that kind of defeats the purpose of being green and buying local when you have to consume fuel to get there.)

    One effort is being made to address the ability of low-income people to participate in farmer's markets, though - a pilot project in a handful of cities around the country and near the White House has farmer's markets accepting food stamps. I think this is fantastic. In D.C. there are poor people everywhere, but they can use public transportation to get anywhere in the city, so this tackles both the convenience and affordability problem.

    But what about elsewhere? This is where Walmart comes in, James says. "You allow Walmart to come into urban areas and provide cheaper fresh produce to people," she says. "The reality is they have a very good distribution network. They can get fresh produce into rural and exurban
    areas very well."

    Do I want Walmart in my backyard? Not really. But the point is well taken, and actually makes some sense. It doesn't help connect farmers to consumers in the way that a farmer's market does, when you can personally talk to the farmer, but perhaps Walmart could feature local food, like some grocery stores are now doing. And if it does it at a price that anyone can afford, and is located in a place where anyone can access, it might not be such a bad idea. (But one problem: how do you build a Walmart in the middle of a dense urban neighborhood, where there isn't any space? And another problem: people don't want Walmart in their neighborhood.)

    The USDA has a site you can search for nearby farmer's markets, including those that accept WIC, SFMNP Vouchers, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards, here. USDA also launched a program called "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food," which is trying to re-connect farmers and consumers. Another tool, called My-Food-a-Pedia, allows you to plug in food and figure out how it fits in to the food pyramid.


    Gerhard Adam
    "The reality is they have a very good distribution network. They can get fresh produce into rural and exurban areas very well."
    I'm confused, I thought fresh produce came from rural areas in the first place.  In addition, how does their distribution network fit into this and still keep it fresh?  The point of a Farmer's Market is that the farmers are the distribution network, so if it still has to be trucked somewhere how does this help?
    Mundus vult decipi
    Becky Jungbauer
    I'm confused, I thought fresh produce came from rural areas in the first place
    Not necessarily. I mean, yes, generally speaking, farms are in more rural areas, but rural does not automatically equal farm. And the point, I believe, is that Walmart is efficient and low cost, so you can get more to people for less time and less money.
    Gerhard Adam
    The reason I mentioned this, is because I'm more rural and it would take longer to drive to
    Wal-mart than to the Farmer's market.  This becomes more so when many people in rural areas make arrangements with their neighbors for different items (side of beef for a pig, etc.).

    I guess my concern is ultimately that I don't see how a large store like Wal-mart can make any difference beyond inserting themselves in the middle.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Becky Jungbauer
    I guess my concern is ultimately that I don't see how a large store like Wal-mart can make any difference beyond inserting themselves in the middle.
    Oh, I think Walmart would definitely be a middle man; I don't think they'd act as a farmer's market. I think the idea is to utilize their efficiency to get healthier food to people who don't really have that many options. One of my aunts lives down in rural Florida, and the closest "grocery" store is in fact a Walmart. If Walmart can have relationships with local farmers or however it's done, they could have central distribution centers that could then farm out Floridian produce to rural Florida Walmarts, instead of individual farmers making individual efforts to get their produce to a county farmer's market or even roadside stand.

    I'm not advocating for more Walmarts whatsoever; I just think the idea is intriguing.
    Gerhard Adam
    I realize you're not advocating any of this, but my concern is that this would eventually squeeze out the farmer.  After all, why should Wal-mart develop relationships with other providers if they already have the infrastructure. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Jeff Sherry
    In general I have found the quality of produce at Walmart lower than other grocers. Does W actually have seperate suppliers of produce or do they make use of local suppliers?
    Becky Jungbauer
    I've never shopped Walmart's produce section, so I don't know. That's where we have to go for work supplies so I have seen signs that say "local" when I walk by the grocery section, but haven't investigated. I wonder if it wouldn't be a better idea to make use of Walmart-like efficiency and have the USDA create some sort of farmer distribution system to local farmer's markets - use the size of the government to ensure negotiating power, but still keep it local. Maybe that's a pipe dream, though.