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Walmart turns over a new leaf as it embraces local produce

By Georgina Gustin | St. Louis Post-Dispatch

manchester — Inside the cavernous new Walmart on Highlands Boulevard Drive, grocery manager Russell Davis stands with a gleaming bounty behind him. Lettuce from California, blueberries from Michigan and grapes from South America.

Then there's the store's hottest grocery commodity these days — pumpkins and corn grown in Brunswick, just a couple of hundred miles away.

"Our customers want locally grown products," Davis says. "They all ask for it. They all want to know: Is this from Missouri?"

In the last several years, locally grown food has become the "it" consumable as more shoppers, concerned about the environmental impact or the safety of their food, seek out products from closer to home. And retailers, from Whole Foods to Safeway, have obliged.

Even Walmart, now the nation's largest supermarket chain as well as retailer, has gotten into the local scene, embarking on an effort to procure more of its produce from local growers.

"If you can get local food in there, you've really arrived," said Mary Hendrickson, a professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri Extension and advocate for regional food systems. "It's not just a fad. It's something that everyone's taking seriously."

But for many food activists, especially those at the forefront of the local movement, Walmart's entry into the local food game is the ultimate irony: The massive corporation, often criticized for sourcing globally and knocking out local

enterprises, opportunistically shifts its focus to smaller-scale, local farmers within striking distance of its stores and distribution centers.

Walmart, they say, represents the antithesis of the buy-local ethos. And, they wonder, would the company actually help the local movement, or just squeeze the life out of it?

"On the one hand, I'm always encouraged when a company with such enormous influence over the food system shows signs of supporting sustainable agriculture," said James McWilliams, a professor at Texas State University-San Marcos, who has written extensively about food systems. "On the other hand — and the skeptic in me leans in this direction — 'eat local' has become such a buzzword, such a brand, such a marketing tool, that it's been largely gutted of meaning."

SYSTEMIC ROLE?

As attempts to create local or regional food systems — including one in St. Louis — have emerged throughout the country, organizers have come upon a major stumbling block: a lack of local or regional infrastructure.

Because the nation's food system has become so far-flung, and supply chains so long, the means for getting, storing and distributing food in smaller systems doesn't exist, at least not on a scale that can feed people regionally.

Could Walmart, with its famously efficient logistics and economic heft, actually play a role in building that infrastructure, or provide its existing infrastructure to the task? Could the global behemoth be a player in building regional food systems?

The corporation seems to think so.

Walmart, by its own accounting, is the biggest consumer of American agriculture, so if it changes its buying habits, American agriculture will change, too. The corporation says that's already happening.

"We have increased our partnership with local farmers 50 percent over the last two years," said Bill Wertz, a company spokesman. "We estimate — company wide — that we purchase more than 70 percent of our produce from U.S. suppliers. In some cases that means it's local, and in some places it's not."

There is no single definition of "local" food. The term isn't regulated or even agreed upon by marketers, retailers or producers. But the essence of local, most agree, is that it comes from smaller-scale producers who have fewer middlemen to overcome on their way to reaching consumers.

Walmart's definition of local, Wertz explained, is a product that's produced and sold within the same state, though there would be exceptions. "In St. Louis, something from Illinois could be more local than something from far away in Missouri."

The company would not provide an employee to talk more in depth about its local food strategy, or how Walmart could impact the development of regional food systems, but Wertz said the company is considering how its vast networking could lead to better distribution of local food to local consumers.

"If we have a truck coming to our store with a load of goods, does the truck go back to the (distribution center) empty, or is there some useful activity for it?" Wertz explained.

For Diane and Tim Rice, who farm 300 acres in Brunswick, that question found an answer.

"They had empty trucks going right by our place," Tim Rice said.

And so, the Rices' products find their way to Walmart stores throughout the state, and their farm has grown, employing 25 people in a fading rural town.

EDUCATION CONNECTION

Earlier this year, 150 people from universities, government, retailers and advocacy groups gathered at a conference held by the University of Arkansas' Applied Sustainability Center. The event, attended and largely sponsored by Walmart, was designed to explore how small producers could connect to larger markets.

"We're trying to provide opportunities for profit for small producers, and we're also trying to deliver fresh local products to consumers," said Mike Faupel, a program director at the center, which was established by Walmart at the university's business school. "If you shop at Walmart, and many people do, you should have access to fresh local produce. It doesn't matter who you are."

Faupel directs the center's Agile Agriculture program, which last year was given a nearly $550,000 grant from the Walmart Foundation to research sustainable, smaller, food systems.

"We have several projects we're working on — assisting with business planning, risk management tools. We're studying enterprise zones," Faupel said. "But there's a link — the social benefits of local food systems. ... We believe local food leads to social benefits."

Not everyone is convinced, though, that Walmart will play a positive role, and some believe the company is merely cashing in on the local trend.

Rich Pirog, a director at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and a leading researcher on regional food systems, says he questions whether smaller producers can provide products on a scale that Walmart requires to keep prices at or below its competitors.

"It's difficult to see how this would work for small and midsize growers," Pirog said. "But (Walmart) is very straightforward about this. They said, 'We're going to move millions and millions of pounds of local food, and we're going to do it so everyone in the supply chain profits, and we're going to be the low price leader in local food.'"

Those kinds of ambitions have some farmers and advocates worried.

"Everything costs less at Walmart — that's their deal," Hendrickson said. "But are they getting that price reduction because they've got such incredibly efficient logistics? Are they ringing efficiencies out of the supply chain? Or are they getting the lower prices out of leaning on workers or producers?"

SUSPICIONS

For schooled consumers of "local" food, the worker or producer sits at the center of this equation. For whatever reasons — perhaps because of food safety concerns or just a desire to be closer to what sustains them — more shoppers want to know where their food comes from. They want to know their farmer, and they want the farmer to be paid fairly.

If this relationship is at the heart of the "local" food movement, or part of an evolving definition of what local food is, then a corporate giant like Walmart isn't a likely intermediary, some say.

"When (Walmart) says 'local,' it's going to have a different meaning," said Patrick Horine, owner of Local Harvest, a grocery store in the Tower Grove South neighborhood that aims to have half of its products come from within 150 miles of St. Louis. "... Walmart's not going to have a relationship with the farmers."

But Walmart says it's forging those relationships, nonetheless. If the company is sincere in its efforts to buy at a fair price and keep profits in communities, then this may be an opportunity for farmers, said Tim Gibbons of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.

But, he added, there are many lingering questions.

"They're a for-profit company. Who has more bargaining power?" Gibbons said. "There's a difference between a huge company and a farmer."

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