What, Me Nice to Walmart?

In the March issue of The Atlantic, which just went up (subscribe!), and an accompanying video produced by Jennie Rothenberg, I discuss a new program Walmart isn't talking much about yet: to buy a much higher percentage of its fresh produce from farms within a day's drive of one of its huge distribution centers. In effect this means reducing reliance on California, Florida, and Mexico. And in practice Walmart hopes it will mean that fruits and vegetables will return to farming areas that long ago gave up growing them, because of competition from heavily industrialized states.

Walmart calls this, misleadingly, Heirloom Agriculture, using "heirloom" not in its now commonly accepted meaning of better-flavored varieties that don't travel well and so fell out of use. Instead it means "heirloom" to apply to the very act of agriculture itself: farming where farms long ago went out of business and barely survive now.

For the piece, I bought ingredients for a blind-tasting dinner in Austin of two meals, with two identical sets of ingredients from an Austin Walmart and the Ur-Whole Foods, as I call it in the video. The dinner was fun, the results surprising, and you can read about them when you subscribe and get the new issue.

For the video, Jennie Rothenberg, a main producer of TheAtlantic.com, and I rented a car and went from Philadelphia's grand 30th Street Station to a Walmart in New Jersey, 20 minutes away. We'd called in advance asking if it would be okay to shoot there, but hadn't had calls back, so in Jennie went with her handheld, and I think you'll agree she did a remarkable job as we both kept a wary eye out for the guards.

None came—until I wrecked it. I dared to eat an out-of-season peach, and wanted to pay for it. The woman at the cash register, who had been incredibly friendly to us before we started shooting when we bought water and fruit, looked at Jennie's camera and said, You're not supposed to have that in here. We smiled, backed away, and backed straight out of the store before the security detail could chase us to the trunk. But we had fun! I think you'll see, and Jennie even picked one of my favorite cheesy tracks I actually don't think is cheesy, by Herb Alpert.

The larger point I make is that whatever Walmart's labor practices, use of its unparalleled buying power, stocking of out-of-season produce from farms in Mexico, Chile, and other country whose own labor practices we can't be sure of or can in fact be highly suspicious of, Walmart does make fresh produce available in many places that otherwise have few or no alternatives, and at a price many more people can afford than if a rival, smaller supermarket—the kind we all want to have near us and support—opened.

Lots of people won't like this, and certainly won't take kindly to my being kind about Walmart. Have a look at the video, buy the magazine and read the piece—and let open season begin!