Whole Foods vs Walmart: A Salad Expert Reflects

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Carol Ann Sayle


I confess. I subscribe to only two magazines, both directly related to farming. I spend most of my time outside on the farm, with the tractor, the hoe, the seeds, the weeds, the harvest, the chickens, and the soil. In the late afternoon, I catch up on communications and fill out tax forms, payroll, and seed orders. That business done, I write my Atlantic Food Channel blog posts, or my seasonal story for Edible Austin, or my personal farm blog. In the morning, it's all my body can take; in the afternoon, it's all my eyes and mind can handle.

Sensing somehow that I am almost illiterate when it comes to national, famous magazines, a subscriber sent me a recent issue of The Atlantic in which Corby Kummer related a "smackdown" between Whole Foods Market and Walmart produce. The smackdown occurred on a long table at the Austin restaurant FINO; the food samples were prepared by Chef Jason Donoho. I was AT that smackdown!

Standing in our farm house kitchen at 7:00 PM while a soup, made of last summer's heirloom tomatoes (Cherokee Purples, frozen, then thawed), our young shallots (pulled impulsively from the soil before their time), chicken broth, a splash of raw goat's milk, and "Herbs de Tejas" simmered on the stove, I read Corby's article to my farm-husband, Larry.

We were hungry, so I quickly read the stage-setting paragraphs, wanting to get to the food! The scene at the blind taste test was described accurately, but I was confused when Corby termed me a "ringer"! Stumped, I falsely associated it with either wrestling matches (the fighting ring?) or auctions (the fellow who pointed at the bidders?).

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Carol Ann Sayle

See, I should read more national, famous magazines. I made a mental note to check the dictionary, but well, the soup was ready.

Today at market, however, folks mentioned the article, and I acted like I read The Atlantic all the time, to associate with the group that does. (Austin is a city with a highly educated population.) Finally, I asked my ex-husband, who maintains a lavender and herbs stand at our market, if he knew what a "ringer" is. He did! And it had nothing to do with wrestling or auctions. (Dang it.)

Instead, as I later confirmed on my desktop's dictionary, it refers to someone "highly proficient in a skill who is brought in to supplement a group" of apparently normal folks, who, while perhaps not professional tasters, still likely read the article before the ringer did. And, I must say, I am not a professional taster either—just a vegetable/greens farmer.

So I noticed brown age spots (rings?) on one sample of the salad comparison. It turned out later to be Walmart's salad. Other than that, both salads tasted the same, as they likely came from the same source. However, the non-ringers didn't notice the brown spots, and many of them even proclaimed the "be-spotted" sample "fresher and heartier-flavored."

Those spots, you understand, added another dimension to the lettuce leaves. They signified the lettuce's last hurrah, and these truly seemed hearty in their march to decomposition. It made me want to admire that in those leaves, but I couldn't, as Corby alluded. I am somewhat of a fanatic on greens. They've got to be fresh, very fresh, or to the Hen House they go, where brown spots, if not already on the leaves, will be affixed to them by the hens' feet as they hold them down to the soil to get good bites with their beaks.

By the way, I must disclose that we have sold produce (and for a few years, even salad greens, which we'd harvest, triple wash, package and get to the store within hours from the soil) to the flagship Whole Foods Market since 1991.

In the early 1990s, Walmart hadn't jumped on the turnip truck for local produce. Only Whole Foods had. And unfortunately, there were very few "local farmers," at least in the Austin area. In fact, there was just one "farmers' market" that specialized in grocery store produce (including bananas and pineapples) in an outside setting. (Ringers won't participate in that kind of market.)

If Walmart now is excited about fresh produce, I am glad, as I want everyone to be able to access healthy food, no matter which stores have it. Walmart just needs to encourage its customers ("ruthlessly," as Corby mentioned) to snatch up those boxes of salad greens (and pomegranates) quickly, so they don't sit too long on the shelves. To me, freshness equals nutrition.

And while local farms can offer really fresh produce, they are usually small and cannot make a living selling at half of retail prices. So it's rare that truly local greens wind up in supermarket stores; it's up to the giant corporate farms or co-ops in South Texas, Florida, California, and Mexico, to supply the chains, whose hundreds of stores are far from the fields.

Alas, keep your eyes open, fellow ringers, as age spots (and wilted greens) are the disappointing proof that freshness lies mainly in advertising.

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Carol Ann Sayle is co-founder and co-owner of Boggy Creek Farm, a five-acre urban, organic farm in Austin, Texas.

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