Walmart knows all this, and knows that various nonprofit agricultural and university networks are trying to solve the same problems. In considering how to build on existing programs (and investments), Walmart talked with the local branch of the Environmental Defense Fund, which opened near the company’s Arkansas headquarters when Walmart started to look serious about green efforts, and with the Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas. The center (of which the Walmart Foundation is a chief funder) is part of a national partnership called Agile Agriculture, which includes universities such as Drake and the University of New Hampshire and nonprofits like the American Farmland Trust.* To get more locally grown produce into grocery stores and restaurants, the partnership is centralizing and streamlining distribution for farms with limited growing seasons, limited production, and limited transportation resources.
Walmart says it wants to revive local economies and communities that lost out when agriculture became centralized in large states. (The heirloom varieties beloved by foodies lost out at the same time, but so far they’re not a focus of Walmart’s program.) This would be something like bringing the once-flourishing silk and wool trades back to my hometown of Rockville, Connecticut. It’s not something you expect from Walmart, which is better known for destroying local economies than for rebuilding them.
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.