« Back to Home Page

How Local is Walmart’s Local Produce?

| Wednesday September 12th, 2012 | 3 Comments

While locavores are busy these days debating the new Stanford research about the benefits of organic food, there’s an older debate they haven’t settled yet. This one concerns Walmart and whether it can help scale up local food.

Walmart’s vow in 2010 to double its sales of locally-sourced produce by 2015 created two camps – those who believe this step can take local food to the next level and those who suspect this is just another form of good old Walmart greenwash that will have no substantial impact on local food.

One of the claims of the latter group is that Walmart uses a very flexible definition of ‘local,’ making the term almost meaningless. There are also slips, like one reported last week on the Consumerist, where a bag of apples from Chile was presented as “locally grown” at a Walmart store in Washington. While these sorts of accidents can happen, the main question is still if Walmart actually benefits the local food movement, or just greenwashes its customers as well as other stakeholders?

In terms of results, Walmart seems to be doing well – its 2010 goal was to increase in 5 years the sales of locally-sourced produce from 4.5 percent to 9 percent of all produce it sells. Earlier this year, in testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee, Ron McCormick, Walmart’s senior director of local sourcing said that Walmart has already surpassed that initial goal and “in fact nearly 11 percent of our produce today is locally sourced.”

This is great, but ‘local’ is a vague concept, just like ‘natural,’ and the question that comes in mind is what exactly ‘local’ is according to Walmart, and is it a reasonable definition? The first answer is easy – according to the Wall-Street Journal, “Walmart says it spotlights fruits and vegetables as locally grown only if they come from the state in which it sells them. A spokesman says the company made that decision because it is the kind of “common sense” definition consumers expect.”

So, is this indeed a common sense definition? One way to check it is to see how other retailers define ‘local.’ Safeway, according to the same Wall Street Journal’s article, doesn’t consider produce locally grown if it takes more than an eight-hour drive to reach a store, and it said it normally buys the food “from the closest growing partners first.” Kroger told the WSJ the term can refer to “produce grown in the same state or within the same region of the country.”

Whole Foods explains that “local produce is, by definition, seasonal.” Its website adds that “each of our 11 regions has its own firm guidelines for using the term ‘local’ in our stores. While only products that have traveled less than a day (7 or fewer hours by car or truck) can even be considered for ‘local’ designation, most stores have established even shorter maximum distances.” And what about Costco? Well, my favorite retailer might be a CSR leader, but I couldn’t find any sign that it has a local food policy, not to mention a definition of what local is.

Outside the retail world there’s also no agreed-on definition. One popular definition relates to the “100 mile diet,” where food items are sourced from within a radius of 100 miles. Federal government uses an arbitrary radius for defining local food in some cases, while many states define local food to be within their jurisdiction. Even farmers markets have their own definitions – in New York City, for example, Greenmarket GrowNYC, explains that producers that want to sell their produce in one of the farmers markets in the city “must be located within our region, a circle extending 120 miles to the south, 170 miles east and west, and 250 miles north of New York City.“

So my impression is that looking at all the other definitions, Walmart’s definition looks quite reasonable and although in some big states like Texas or California it can become less meaningful, it’s still, in general, a definition that supports local farming. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t forget that local is not only about miles. “It’s not just geography; it’s scale and ownership and how you treat your workers. Walmart is doing industrial local,” Andy Fisher, former executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition told Stacy Mitchell.

Walmart actually agrees that sustainable agriculture is not just a matter of geography and claims it is committed to strengthen local farmers and economies. This commitment is reflected in goals such as selling $1 billion in food sourced from 1 million small- and medium-sized farmers, or providing training to 1 million farmers and farm workers – half of whom we expect to be women – in such areas as crop selection and sustainable farming. Unlike with its local sourcing goal, the company doesn’t provide any updates on its website on its progress.

It looks like the debate on Walmart’s contribution to the local food movement is far from being over. Yet, it seems to me that while the company probably needs to do more to support small-scale farmers, its efforts so far, from the definition of ‘local’ to meeting its goal, shows Walmart is getting serious about local food, and doesn’t greenwash its customers. How does it look to you?

[Image credit: Walmart Stores, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development.


▼▼▼      3 Comments     ▼▼▼

Newsletter Signup
  • AndyM

    In my local veg store in the UK, I’d expect ‘local’ to mean within around 25 miles of the shop, not 8 hours’ drive – for us, that would mean that carrots grown in Paris were local. Mais non, ce n’est pas juste!

  • Rebecca Thistlethwaite

    When visiting a Walmart in Tallahasee, Florida last April, red grapefruit was the only produce I could find grown within that state. April in Florida almost anything can be grown. However, this big sign above their produce section was a bit confusing, since only 1 single item was “local”. What a bunch of greenwashing…

  • Kenton Harmer

    Rebecca’s example brings up an interesting dynamic. Almost anything can be grown in Florida but not necessarily should be. For example, Florida tomatoes often require a huge amount of fertilizer because of the soil type they are grown in. Growing practices can be more impactful than transportation in terms of carbon emissions therefore it needs to be clear what the desired objective of defining something as Local is. If it is to reduce emissions than, without supporting data, it can’t be assumed that Local is lower. If the goal is around supporting small & medium farms and rural economies then Local may also not be the right proxy as a tomato from a small farm in Georgia may be more ‘local’ than what is produced by one of the massive grower/shippers based out of Okeechobee. All this is to say that the complexities of our current food system don’t often fit neatly into phrases. The more precision that is brought to the conversation the more we can accurately hold companies like Walmart to account for improving their impacts – be it environmental, social or otherwise. Conversely, making unsupported assumptions can render the arguement ineffective.