Walmart's Farm-Fresh Produce: 'Local-Washing'?

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As I'm sure Corby could tell, his article about Walmart upset me. I grew up in southern Missouri, just a few stone's throws north of the Walmart epicenter. While I don't think Walmart can be blamed per se for the current state of the food economy, the idea that they would be given such prominent credit for theoretically bringing positive impacts to small farmers smacks more of local-washing then it does of critical thinking.

Culture and economy cannot be separated. Together they form an ocean with many currents, and Walmart is one of the biggest tankers on that ocean. The wake it leaves can raise boats in some harbors and drown the whole town in another.

When I was growing up, pretty much everyone I knew had a large garden. I don't think most folks kept their own gardens because they enjoyed hoeing, weeding, and shoveling shit. They did it because it was one way they knew they could keep a certain amount of food on the table year-round. Every house that had a garden usually had a cupboard full of canned green beans, corn relish, and blackberry preserves, all delicious, but a heck of a lot of work to make. These habits were born more of necessity than pleasure.

As the generations change, fewer and fewer folks maintain these habits. Sure, a homegrown tomato beats anything at the store, but you're also likely to lose a lot of your effort to pests and rot. Why should anyone dig his own potatoes under a hot Ozark sun when he can run to Walmart and pick some up for a few pennies per pound?

Today, as a co-founder and co-owner of City Feed and Supply, I choose to purchase and re-sell as much local produce from truly small farms as we possibly can. We do this because we know how hard it is to survive as a farm, we respect the folks who are doing it, and we think the products are of a much better quality than anything else available. We don't do it to maximize profit. We are but a speck of a water strider in Walmart's wake, but I would argue that it is not the quantity of dollars spent that measures care and intent but rather what lies in the hearts of the folks who stand to profit from the transaction. Who can measure the care and intent at the heart of Walmart? Would they or anyone else deny that their primary motive has always been and will always be to maximize profit?

At City Feed and Supply, we get slammed all the time for our high prices, largely because most folks perceive high prices as an attempt by the seller to pick their pockets. I would argue that the reverse is more often true. The best pickpockets are those who are in and out without you even knowing it. "Always low prices" go hand in hand with the invisible hand of the marketplace. The invisible hand that picks your pocket every day by monopolizing supply chains, depressing labor markets, and driving smaller competitors out of business.

That may not come through in the flavor profile of your "affordable" local and organic produce, but I encourage you to put it in your pipe, smoke it, and then dwell on the mouth feel and the aftertaste. Just keep in mind that every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of world you want to live in. If you want to see more Walmarts in the world, just spend as much money there as you possibly can. If you want to see more truly small farms in the world, join a CSA, go to a farmers' market, or support an independent market or co-op that buys from local farms.

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David Warner is the co-owner of City Feed and Supply, a specialty foods store and cafe with two locations in Boston.

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