As everyone who sells to or buys from (or, notoriously, works for) Walmart knows, price is where every consideration begins and ends. Even if the price Walmart pays for local produce is slightly higher than what it would pay large growers, savings in transport and the ability to order smaller quantities at a time can make up the difference. Contracting directly with farmers, which Walmart intends to do in the future as much as possible, can help eliminate middlemen, who sometimes misrepresent prices. Heritage produce currently accounts for only 4 to 6 percent of Walmart’s produce sales, McCormick told me (already more than a chain might spend on produce in a year, as Fishman would point out), adding that he hopes the figure will get closer to 20 percent, so the program will “go from experimental to being really viable.”
Michelle Harvey, who is in charge of working with Walmart on agriculture programs at the local Environmental Defense Fund office, summarized a long conversation with me on the sustainability efforts she thinks the company is serious about: “It’s getting harder and harder to hate Walmart.”
“We support local farmers,” read a sign at an Austin Walmart. I didn’t see any farm names listed in the produce section, but I did find plastic tubs of organic baby spinach and “spring mix” greens with modern labeling that looked like it could be at Whole Foods. My list was simple to the point of stark, for a fair fight. Some ingredients seemed identical to what I’d find at Whole Foods. Organic, free-range brown eggs. Promised Land all-natural, hormone-free milk. A bottle of Watkins Madagascar vanilla for panna cotta. I couldn’t find much in the way of the seasonal fruit the restaurant had told me the chef would serve with dessert. But I did find, to my surprise, a huge bin of pomegranates, so I bought those, and some Bosc pears. The sticking points were fresh goat cheese, which flummoxed the nice sales people (we found some Alouette brand, hidden), and chicken breasts. I could find organic meat, but no breasts without “up to 12 percent natural chicken broth” added—an attempt to inject flavor and add weight. I wasn’t happy with the suppliers, either: Tyson predominated. I bought Pilgrims Pride, but was suspicious. The bill was $126.02.
At the flagship Whole Foods, in downtown Austin, the produce was much more varied, though the spinach and spring mix looked less vibrant. The chicken was properly dry, a fresh ivory color—and more than twice as expensive as Walmart’s. My total bill was $175.04; $20 of the extra $50 was for the meat.
Brian Stubbs, the tall, genial young manager of Fino, and Jason Donoho, the chef, were intrigued as they helped me carry bag after bag into the restaurant’s kitchen. They carefully segregated the bags on two shelves of a walk-in refrigerator. The younger cooks looked surprised by the Whole Foods kraft-paper bags, and slightly horrified by the flimsy white plastic ones from Walmart.
The next night 16 critics, bloggers, and general food lovers gathered around a long, high table at the restaurant. Stubbs passed out scoring sheets with bullets for grades of one (worst) to five (best) for each of the four courses, and lines for comments.
The first course, bowls of almonds and pieces of fried goat cheese with red-onion jam and honey, was a clear win for Walmart. The Walmart almonds were described as “aromatic,” “mellow,” “pure,” and “yummy,” the Whole Foods almonds as “raw,” though also more “natural”; they were in fact fresher, though duller in flavor. (Like the best of the food I saw at the Austin Walmart, the packaging for the almonds had a homegrown Mexican look.) The second course, mixed spring greens in a sherry vinaigrette, was another Walmart win: only a few tasters preferred the Whole Foods greens, calling them fresher and heartier-flavored. And only one noticed the little brown age spots on a few Walmart leaves, but she was a ringer—Carol Ann Sayle, a local farmer famous for her greens.
So far Walmart was ahead. But then came the chicken, served with a poached egg on a bed of spinach and golden raisins. A woman whose taste I already thought uncanny—she works as an aromatherapist—compared the broth-infused meat to something out of a hospital cafeteria: “It’s like they injected it with something to make it taste like fast food.” I thought it was salty, damp, and dismal. The spinach, though, was another story: even the most ardent brothy-breast haters thought the Walmart spinach was fresher.
Dessert was the most puzzling. I had thought that Walmart’s locally sourced milk and exotic-looking vanilla would be the gold standard, but the Whole Foods house brands slaughtered them (“Kicks A’s ass,” one taster wrote). People couldn’t find enough words to diss the Walmart panna cotta (“artificial, thin”) and praise the Whole Foods one (“like a good Christmas”). I wished I’d bought the identical Promised Land milk at Whole Foods, to see if there is in fact a difference in the branded food products that suppliers give Walmart, as there is in the case of other branded products. The pomegranate seeds, sadly, were wan, with barely any flavor, particularly compared with the garnet gems from Whole Foods. But Walmart got points from the chef, and from me, for carrying pomegranates at all.
As I had been in my own kitchen, the tasters were surprised when the results were unblinded at the end of the meal and they learned that in a number of instances they had adamantly preferred Walmart produce. And they weren’t entirely happy.
In an ideal world, people would buy their food directly from the people who grew or caught it, or grow and catch it themselves. But most people can’t do that. If there were a Walmart closer to where I live, I would probably shop there.
Most important, the vast majority of Walmarts carry a large range of affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. And Walmarts serve many “food deserts,” in large cities and rural areas—ironically including farm areas. I’m not sure I’m convinced that the world’s largest retailer is set on rebuilding local economies it had a hand in destroying, if not literally, then in effect. But I’m convinced that if it wants to, a ruthlessly well-run mechanism can bring fruits and vegetables back to land where they once flourished, and deliver them to the people who need them most.