Wal-Mart Goes Local – Should We be Scared?

Wal-Mart recently announced that it will be focusing more on local food. Will this be good or bad for local economies?

Wal-Mart employee restocking the produce section.

If you’re anything like me, you’re pretty skeptical of any move that Wal-Mart makes. When a friend sent me an article recently about the retail giant “going local,” my first reaction was confusion followed quickly by good, old-fashioned skepticism and a fewย  questions.

  • Is Wal-Mart going to weaken local standards?
  • What will this move mean for small farms in the long run?
  • Should we reward the company with our local food dollars?

One of my favorite teachers of all time, Mr. Ivey, taught us that when faced with a decision that causes this much inner turmoil, a PMI is a really helpful tool. Nope, not private mortgage insurance. Mr. Ivey’s PMI stood for Plus, Minus, and Interesting. Basically, he was a fan of divvying up what you know into those three categories, where Interesting facts are ones you don’t really consider a Plus or Minus. Here’s a PMI laying out what I know about Wal-Mart’s local food initiative:


Wal-Mart’s whole local food scheme grew out of a plan to save on fuel costs. Since they were sending whole fleets of trucks all over the country, it just made sense to move more product while they had trucks in the area. For a fleet of trucks the size of Wal-Mart’s, using fuel more efficiently is definitely a plus. According to a company press release, they saved over 122,000 gallons in diesel fuel in 2008 alone (pdf) through their local food program.

They began adding stops at local farms on the way to their supercenter stores, which The Atlantic points out, often serve as grocery stores in “food desert” areas. This one’s feeling like a plus, right? We want folks to have access to fresh, local produce.

The other plus also comes from that article in The Atlantic, where they did a blind taste test comparing Wal-Mart’s local produce to Whole Foods’. Expert foodies chose Wal-Mart’ produce over Whole Foods’ in a number of instances, which was really surprising.


The first minus that came to mind is a concern about how this is going to effect farmers. Wal-Mart is notorious for forcing suppliers to lower prices by any means necessary. Why should we expect them to behave differently here?

Wal-Mart defines local as within the same state, which in a place like California can mean hundreds of miles. That’s not exactly the sort of local that locavores had in mind. A store like Whole Foods defines local as food that travels less than a day to its destination, and at the farmers market, food miles get considerably shorter dropping below 100 miles in most cases.

The meat situation at Wal-Mart sounds like it’s still pretty pitiful. When shopping for the blind taste test, The Atlantic’s Corby Kummer was only able to find “broth enhanced” chicken from what he described as “questionable” sources. One of the upsides to really buying local food is finding meat from farmers who ethically raise their animals. Does that Tyson brand chicken breast cancel out the local broccoli that you bought to serve alongside it?


Wal-Mart is the world’s largest retailer, serving 14 countries and counting. They have over 175 million customers per week worldwide and did over $400 billion in sales last year.

I spoke with Duane Marcus, a small farmer in the Atlanta area about Wal-Mart’s local food program, and he made a couple of interesting points. Here’s what he had to say:

Duane: From my point of view whatever they do has no impact on my business because my customers would never shop there anyway.

What I am seeing is that through their green initiatives they are swaying people who should know better that they are doing something good. The same people who decried their destruction of small town local businesses.

EDB: That’s their claim with this local initiative – rebuilding local economies.

Duane: Total BS. Furthering their stranglehold on local economies would be more accurate.

So, what do you guys think? Does Wal-Mart get a back pat, or are the negatives just too much? I’d love to hear from some more farmers on this one!

Image Credits:
Restocking. Creative Commons photo via xpontius
Wal-Mart. Creative Commons photo via alphageek
Always Low Prices. Creative Commons photo via aka Kath

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6 thoughts on “Wal-Mart Goes Local – Should We be Scared?”

  1. This is the greatest opportunity the world has ever seen.

    If Walmart becomes truly Sustainably Green and influences all its suppliers to be truly Sustainably Green that will influence the world more than any of the organizations set up to do this!!!

    We are entering a time where there are people who will dedicate their life just to watching Walmart.

    All organizations need to become self supporting in order to be sustainable. Walmart needs to make a profit. We need to make sure that the way they make a profit is good for the world.

  2. I agree that this could be a great thing, if they do it right. I’ve got some issues with things like how they define local, though, and their track record with manhandling suppliers is pretty worrisome.

    You’re right, companies do have to make some money to stay afloat. I guess it’s just a matter of how they do it. There are companies out there making a profit while genuinely working hard to do the right thing. Patagonia is a great example. It doesn’t have to be either-or, and I hope Wal-Mart proves my instincts wrong on this one for sure!

  3. *Less* evil is better than *more* evil, sure… but it won’t get me shopping there. I think it’s kinda cool, as a reflection of growing demand/ consumer awareness, regarding local food… but it’s not going to sway me into shopping at WM vs. buying directly from farmers. Why would I do that? If the farmer’s now selling to me AND Wal-mart, that’s cool, more money for him/ her… but why support the middleman vs the actual producer? There are some things that need mass production/ shipping; get those from big stores if you have to… but why reduce growers’ profits by buying from a resaler? Just pay the grower, I say.

    It’s neat that WM is hot for this market share though; reflects an awareness that “the times they are a-changin'” regarding the food that people want… so that’s cool, by itself. (Still not shoppin’ there, though!)

  4. I liked your PMI thing. Its hard to tell because bottom line is they probably won’t care about families or kids or why people need to eat and consume better quality products with humane treatment for workers and environment.
    If their making money collides with saving fuel for the environment that’s good thing.
    I think i would wait and see where this goes but have to agree with the local farmer you interviewed.

  5. If Walmart collectively folds what few local farms remain into their system – we get yet another version of Walmart dictating price and control over our local economies. Walmart will push local farms to produce more with less in order to drive the price down and monopolize local food distribution. Stick with your local farmers, obtain a better product at a reasonable price, and truly keep your dollars in your local economy. I recently visited a Walmart in New Orleans where they advertised Local Farms first and that they proudly purchased navel oranges from a local farm. After the manager showed me oranges from California, Texas, and another country he asked the produce manager to help with finding the citrus they claimed to buy. The produce manager told me she has never had Louisiana oranges in her store and ran away with the sign advertising the farm they claimed to buy from. Don’t believe it? I have a photo of the produce manager running away with the sign.

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