How Walmart Does Local

Massive, big-box grocers give local a lot of lattitude.

On Tuesday, my colleague Allan Reetz, the Co-op’s tenacious director of public relations, shared a fabulous post with all Co-op staff about the difference between food co-ops and the competition. 

The post, Walmart vs. Food Co-ops: Taking Back Our Food Chain, was written by Al Norman of Sprawl-Busters fame, reporting for the Huffington Post. “If you walk into any of the 4,132 Walmarts in America that sell groceries,” Norman wrote, “you will find only 11 percent of its produce was grown in the same state where it’s sold. That’s Walmart’s definition of ‘local produce.'”

Great stuff. A few other highlights:

The more dominant Walmart becomes, the fewer opportunities there will be for farmers markets, food co-ops, and neighborhood grocery stores.

Walmart’s emphasis is a profit-driven, one-dimensional “industrial-local” model, while food co-ops are dedicated to regional agriculture and building a better food system.

A 2013 report for NPR found there was “little evidence of small farmers benefiting” from Walmart’s local sourcing. 

“But there is another definition of ‘local’ in America, one that is not found in the cavernous superstores,” Norman wrote. “If you walk into any of the estimated 330 food co-ops in America, you will see an emphasis on “locally grown” products. Almost half of these grassroots businesses are members of the National Co+op Grocers (NCG), a cooperative for retail food co-ops located in 38 states, with combined annual sales of nearly $2 billion, and over 1.3 million consumer-owners.”

Norman is dead on. Unlike Walmart, food co-ops were local before local was cool, and they adhere to local standards their big-box competition can’t touch.

Our co-op has been offering local products since 1936, when a handful of Upper Valley families got together to arrange for discounts with local suppliers on potatoes, maple syrup, and gasoline and fuel oil. Today we have nearly 300 local suppliers and do nearly $14 million in local-food sales each year.

By contrast, giant megastores just jumped on the local bandwagon a few years ago. In the process, they’re stretching the definition of local beyond recognition.

When Walmart Went Local

In 2010, the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, made headlines by embracing the local movement, pledging to more than double local-produce sales from 4 to 9 percent by the end of 2015. The company exceeded its goal in just two years.

“In fact nearly 11 percent of our produce today is locally sourced,” said Ron McCormick, Walmart’s senior director of local sourcing, in testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee in 2012.

Walmart’s local-produce sales continue to grow. Late last summer Forbes reported the giant food retailer sold nearly $750 million of locally grown produce annually.

But walk into a Walmart and you may notice the local produce isn’t what you thought.

Even in agriculture-rich areas of the country, foods grown right down the road from a Walmart are often absent from the store’s produce departments. Why?

The key is the vague, generally unregulated word “local,” which gives a company like Walmart broad leeway to define local on its own terms. 

Any produce sold in the same state in which it is grown is considered local by Walmart standards. 

Here’s how a few other retailers define local:

California-based giant supermarket Safeway told the Wall Street Journal it sources local produce “from the closest growing partners first.”

Popular grocer Whole Foods gets most of its local produce from farms less than a few hours away from the store by car or truck.

Our own co-op follows the localvore logic and defines local as products grown or produced within 100 miles from our stores.

Walmart’s local produce doesn’t have to be grown near a store at all. In the same testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee, McCormick said Walmart’s local farms are often located near the company’s massive distribution centers.

The end result is this: Many consumers assume local produce comes from a small family farm right down the road from a store. That’s how it works at a co-op like ours. But in the case of Walmart, local could mean a huge factory farm near a distribution center far away. It also means there are plenty of opportunities for slip-ups, such as when a Washington state Walmart sold “local” apples from Chile, as reported by Consumerist

To be fair, Walmart is in the business of profits, not social movements, and the company has kept to its word and increased local-produce sales substantially.

There was good reason to do it. As one might guess, going local means there’s something in it for Walmart. Local produce is not only a popular selling point, but it can be cheaper for huge operations. 

It’s expensive to ship produce thousands of miles across the country. Analysts agree it’s no coincidence Walmart began seeking growers closer to its distribution centers as gas prices began to rise.

Produce industry analyst Jim Prevor told Mother Jones that Walmart looks for farm operations near distribution centers and big enough to match the prices of massive California megafarms. This means small family farms across the country are often left out. 

“There’s a joke in the industry that if Walmart wants to increase local sales, all it has to do is open more stores in California,” Prevor said. 

Learn More

Want to see the Co-op’s list of local products? Check it out here. Got a question or comment about the Co-op’s commitment to local? Email comment@coopfoodstore.com.

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Ken Davis

Ken Davis

Ken is a writer in the Co-op Outreach Department. Email him at kdavis@coopfoodstore.com.