How Walmart Turned Its Weak Urban Image Into a Public Interest Campaign Against Food Deserts

© Food and Water Watch

A report out from Food and Water Watch this week details the efforts that Walmart has made to boost access to healthy food and incorporate sustainable practices into its supply chain and operations, and explains why these initiatives aren't going to solve our environmental or public health problems.

Much of the report, Why Walmart Can't Fix the Food System, covers ground that won't be new to most TreeHugger readers: how Walmart's focus on efficiency may be abandoned when the sustainable choice is not profitable, and its organic food supply is not necessarily produced ethically or sustainably—organic dairy cows being raised in factory farm-like conditions, for example. Michael Pollan asked this question years ago: "how exactly would Wal-Mart get the price of organic food down to a level just 10 percent higher than that of its everyday food? To do so would virtually guarantee that Wal-Mart's version of cheap organic food is not sustainable."

Exploiting Food Deserts

Over about the last year, Walmart has launched initiatives to fight childhood obesity and food deserts, with Michelle Obama's outspoken support. The partnership has generated plenty of criticism for both parties—but left out of this discussion has been Walmart's ability to exploit the very definition of food desert.

The Food and Water Watch report explains more:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines “food desert” not simply as a lower-income area with no access to fresh food, but as an area without access to a supermarket or large grocery store. A supermarket is defined as a retailer with annual sales of $2 million, and it must contain all the traditional major food departments, including fresh meat and produce, dairy products, dry and packaged goods, and frozen foods.

This requirement can generally be met only by large national grocery chains. A smaller local grocery co-op, corner store or bodega, which may in fact provide fresh fruits and vegetables as well as cycle more money back into the community, does not count under the USDA guideline, a fault that the department is well aware of. This corporate-friendly definition makes sure only the opening of a large national grocery chain can eliminate a food desert, a situation that Walmart is using to its advantage.

The report explains the difficulty Walmart has faced over the last few years in expanding into urban areas—the controversy over a Walmart in NYC has been one of the more publicized debates on this topic. It explains how relabeling the effort as a fight-food-deserts initiative has worked pretty well for them. But Food and Water Watch says the penetration of urban markets is still the underlying goal:

In July 2011, First Lady Obama made a second statement on behalf of Walmart and other large retailers when she announced that Walmart was making an official commitment to open up or expand 275 to 300 stores in underserved urban and rural areas. To the general public, this sounds like a solution that helps everyone: low-income populations in urban and rural areas will be able to obtain lower-cost, healthy and fresh foods that they did not previously have access to. But this talk of supplying good food in “food deserts” is simply a public relations tactic that Walmart is using to try to expand into urban markets, an area it has unsuccessfully tried to break in to for years...

Walmart’s model for supplying the fruits and vegetables it will sell in food deserts is part of the problem. By driving down costs at every step in the chain, the Walmart model makes farmers and workers poorer, and it increases the odds that fruits and vegetables will be produced in environmentally irresponsible ways or be imported from countries with lax standards.

Whether intentions matter or not is another discussion. The point of the report, as its title makes clear, is ultimately that Walmart will not fix our failing food system. Its initiatives may address some of the short-term problems we face, but it's not the solution we need, not the one we've been looking or fighting for, and we should not pretend it's anything close to either.

The Way Forward

The report has suggestions for ways to help communities improve access to healthy food that don't involve Walmart—but that do involve some help from the federal government:

· Investigating the impact of Walmart’s monopoly power in the food chain and in local retail markets, including anticompetitive practices that result from Walmart’s disproportionate market share. Any investigation should look at possible anticompetitive practices in Walmart’s relationships with suppliers and impacts on local markets.

· Creating food and farm policy that re-establishes regional food systems that will provide healthy, affordable food to all communities. Federal farm policy should strengthen food assistance programs that fight hunger and improve nutrition such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants, and Children Supplemental Nutrition Program to ensure that low-income Americans have the resources necessary to afford healthy, nutritious foods and prevent hunger.

Tags: Corporate Responsibility | Food Security | United States | Urban Life | Walmart