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Mar 2, 2010 03:06 PM

"Will Walmart make America healthy?" Huh?


“You won’t recognize the grocery section"
"friends started telling me I needed to look seriously at Walmart’s efforts to sell sustainably raised food."

read more or watch the video

  1. The Evil Empire's attempts to get the yuppies shopping there.

    1. No. Even if the products are "healthy" (and no one has proven that "sustainably raised" food is healthier than conventionally raised food, although there are other reasons to buy it) Wal-Mart promotes excessive consumption. Too much cheap food is the problem, not the solution.

      25 Replies
      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        <Too much cheap food is the problem, not the solution.>

        Even if it's cheap vegetables and fruits, which don't exactly lend themselves to excessive consumption? The video shows cucumbers for 36 cents a pound and peaches for 94 cents a pound. I understand wanting to avoid Walmart on principle, but people are going to shop there, and they may as well be able to buy something decent.

        Corby Kummer kept saying "prah-duce" for produce in the video. What kind of accent is that?

        1. re: small h

          Cheap veggies are good. But the fact is that Americans spend the lowest percentage of their income on food of any people in the world. Sure there are some very poor people who can't afford food, but for most Americans it's not that they can't afford healthy food, it's that they're prioritizing it too low. For the most part it's not that fresh food is too expensive, it's that for various reasons people are choosing not to buy it, and to instead buy much more expensive processed and packaged foods. People who were going to buy it anyway are just going to have more money left over to buy other crap they don't need at Wal-Mart. I say that as someone who has been strapped for cash and spent very little money the last few months except for fresh foods (meat, produce, bread), because -- amazingly -- I've found I can do very nicely with the stuff I already have.

          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            So your solution is to force people to spend more for lettuce so they have less money left over for Cool Ranch Doritos? I'm afraid if the lettuce goes up in price, it's the lettuce that gets jettisoned from the shopping cart, not the chips.

            I don't see how demonizing Walmart for this particular thing (when there are so many other things!) is helpful. But maybe I don't quite understand what you think is the better way to go.

            1. re: small h

              I'm just responding to the original question, which was "Will Wal-Mart make America healthy?" While making veggies cheaper at Wal-Mart is a good thing, I don't think it's going to have any effect on the overall consumption patterns of Americans, which is in large part driven by the Wal-Mart ethos that it's the right of every American to buy as much cheap crap as possible.

              I don' t think price is the barrier to people buying produce, I think it's a whole complex of various socio-economic factors that make people choose Cool Ranch Doritos over organic spring mix, which are about the same price per ounce at my local supermarket.

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                I can certainly see a downside to a behemoth like Walmart cornering the organic produce market, and crushing smaller farmers, and then abandoning this little experiment if it doesn't prove profitable, leaving us with no smaller farmers. But I do hope that if people have the opportunity to pick up a cheap bunch of grapes under the same roof as the socks and the DVD players (and the Doritos), maybe they'll take it. I also hope I win the lottery, and an Academy Award.

                1. re: small h

                  Geez, did you even read the article? "Crushing smaller farmers"? Wal-Mart has an initiative to bring back more smaller farms, and introduce more local varieties, rather than getting, say, all your tomatoes from California. How, exactly, is working with smaller farms and encouraging them to expand the variety of local products available "crushing" them?

                  I live a mile away from a Wal-Mart in Northern Toronto. I occasionally drop in to buy socks, or kitchen goods. They have a small food section, which I almost never visit because they don't offer produce (it's not a "superstore"). Everything is processed or packaged food, and that doesn't interest me, except for a few canned goods. If they did offer decent produce, I would shop there more often, so I think it's a smart business decision.

                  And I have visited Wal-Mart superstores in the US that do have a full service grocery, and it seemed to me that their carts were filled more with groceries than with other goods. I think I smell someone's bias showing.

                  1. re: FrankD

                    <Geez, did you even read the article?>

                    Yes. Here's a quote from it, with which I agree: "I’m not sure I’m convinced that the world’s largest retailer is set on rebuilding local economies it had a hand in destroying, if not literally, then in effect." I also saw this documentary:


                    I come by my bias honestly.

                    1. re: small h

                      walmart also has a checkered history of mislabeling, including labeling conventional produce as certified organic.

              2. re: small h

                I haven't heard of any plan to "force" people to buy healthier food, but right now there are dis-incentives to buy healthy food. Gov't subsidies on fresh vegetables, if there are any, do not compare with the subsidies in products like corn. The result is that high fructose corn syrup is an ingredient found in a huge number of products. The political clout of the agribusiness giants make it very difficult to fashion a food policy that stresses public health over these corporate interests. I have nothing against corporations making money, but it would be nice if gov't can incentivise them to make their profits in a more healthf promoting manor.

                Re your comment "no one has proven that "sustainably raised" food is healthier than conventionally raised food, ".
                While there may not be definitive proof that sustainably raised food has a higher nutrient content, I think it is generally accepted that some of the practices of large scale factory farms, in terms of their use of pesticides and antibiotics, have negative effects on health as well as environmental costs that are passes on to the taxpayer to clean up. The issues are complex because agriculture is one of the few areas of production where the US is competitive. It also seems impossible to feed a world population with small scale sustainable farming methods.

                1. re: Rmis32

                  Are you sure you meant to reply to me? 'Cause I didn't say anything about sustainably raised food. Also, I know what you mean about subsidies on corn having negative consequences, but I consider corn a vegetable. So the government IS subsidizing vegetables. Just not the vegetables you think should be subsidized.

                  1. re: Rmis32

                    The substitution of HFCS for sugar occurred because a small group of southern sugar producers persuaded the government to put a tariff barrier against cheap sugar from the Caribbean, Brazil, etc. The resulting rise in the price of sugar - people in the US pay about twice what we pay in Canada - caused major sugar users to look for a substitute, and HFCS fit the bill.

                    And, in case you didn't know, the price of corn has about doubled over the last four years, from $2/bush to nearly $4 today, because of the ridiculous ethanol subsidy, where again, tariffs keep cheap Brazilian ethanol out of the US, US ethanol production gets a subsidy, and a huge windfall gets into the hands of Iowa farmers. Of course, the people who use corn and corn by products have to pay higher prices. So meat and other things become more expensive.

                    So, if you want fewer distortions in food markets, why don't you start by getting the US - which always claims to want "free trade", except when it doesn't - government to tear down the tariff barriers, and reduce prices in many areas? Maybe some corporations asked for those barriers, but you can still vote against them.

                    1. re: FrankD

                      So you're saying you want the same standard of living in Iowa they have in Brazil?

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        Your implication that a restructure of our tariff and subsidy systems with respect to sugar and corn would necessarily lead to mass poverty in Iowa is incorrect.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          That was not an especially insightful reply. I didn't realize, prior to the ethanol subsidy, that Iowa farmers were living in penury. And, since I'm sure you're not aware, the subsidy DOES NOT go to the Iowa farmers; it goes to the ethanol producers, who thanks to the many states that mandate a minimum of E85 gasoline, can barely keep up with demand. But those ethanol makers bid up the price of corn in competition with food users. So, a distorting tariff paid to gas companies showers a windfall on Iowa farmers, while shifting the cost of both the subsidy and increased food prices to the rest of America. Perhaps this seems fair to you, but as with sugar, it seems to me that the rest of America is being forced to pay

                          And, as a knock-on effect, farmers have shifted acres and acres from soybeans to corn, with the twin effects of raising the price of soybeans, which are also used extensively throughout the food chain, and depleting the soil. (Most people know that corn is very hard on soil if grown year after year, while beans restore nitrogen and other nutrients to it.)

                          So, let's add it all up - for the sake of a few ethanol makers and corn farmers, food prices go up across America, taxes (or deficits) go up across America, and the soil requires massive amounts of fertilizer to continue to produce corn year after year. If you believe this is a good plan, you are, of course, entitled to your opinion. I for one think it's incredibly stupid.

                          1. re: FrankD

                            Yes, incredibly stupid.
                            However, when environmental activists insisted on US investment in ethanol, it was stupidly added to the Farm Bill, against the advice of energy and agricultural economists.
                            Ethanol from corn has proved to be a disaster.
                            Are we listening to the wrong people?

                            1. re: MakingSense

                              Those terrible environmentalists! Too bad people like you benefit from the efforts of environmentalists and unions even when you don't support them. Must be nice to be ideologically pure and still have benefits like air and water that are cleaner than they were 40 years ago, despite huge population growth and economic expansion.

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                Please read back to FrankD's comments before jumping to conclusions about my politics. Good stewardship of our resources should not be the slave of politics although it has been increasingly so in recent years.
                                To assume that all things that the "environmentalists" desire are good policy and good economics ignores the unintended consequences of a rush to adopt the next seemingly great idea.

                                It requires almost the same amount of fossil fuel input to produce an equal quantity of ethanol. The downstream impact on the environment and local economies is enormous. There has been a negative effect.
                                The rush to federal subsidy of ethanol production has resulted in the very things that CHs decry in the food world. Environmentalist now protest the very results of their own efforts. The ugly reality of federal subsidies is that they acquire a life of their own once enacted. It is political suicide for a farm state politician to propose ending them.

                                Prudence should dictate that these policies not be enshrined in law on a massive scale for the sake of politics. There is little difference among Big Enviro, Big Business, Big Ag, and Big Labor. They all want what they want and get it through political clout.

                            2. re: FrankD

                              You're right, of course, that for the most part farm subsidies and protectionism benefit big agribusiness. But since you -- and Making Sense -- seem to be rabidly pro-business, I would think you would see this as a good thing!

                              Americans may be paying for these subsidies, but they still pay a smaller proportion of their incomes on food than any nation in the world, so I don't think our farm policies are hurting their pocketbooks (although they are incredibly damaging in other ways).

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                I don't know whereyou get the idea that I'm "rabidly pro-business". I would prefer to think I'm rabidly pro-good sense. I don't have anything against environmentalists per se; if they think ethanol really would solve a problem (a case most definitely not proven), then by all means, let's have ethanol. Brazil makes it at 1/5 the price of the US, so let's import it from there instead of introducing distortions throughout the food business.

                                And your impression that Americans pay a smaller proportion of their incomes on food than any other country is based on your faulty reasoning that food costs do not include the cost of these subsidies which fall on your tax bill. If those are factored in, I doubt Americans (9.8%) pay significantly less than, say, Germans (10%), or even Canada (10.8%).

                                1. re: FrankD

                                  Germans and Canadians (1) don't pay taxes and (2) don't have government subsidies of agriculture? Really? I'm not going to take the time to google it myself, I'd be shocked if they don't subsidize portions of their agricultural industries, although perhaps not the same ones.

                                  Not you perhaps, but anyone who blames environmentalists rather than the agribusiness lobby on ethanol subsidies IMHO has a pro-business bias. Most environmentalists I know (and BTW, environmentalists are not a monolithic group -- just look at California water politics if you don't believe me), aren't particularly pro-ethanol and think corn subsidies do more harm than good.

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    In Canada, we have "marketing boards" which dispense quota to local farmers for things like milk, eggs, etc. The result is we pay more than Americans for milk and eggs, most definitely. Other people suggest that our policy of paying east coast fisherman unemployment for the six months of the year they can't fish constitutes a subsidy. So I don't suggest we're not without sin, by a long shot.

                                    But these are at least fairly transparent, and directly related to the food products. The ethanol and sugar subsidies distort so many other things, in so many areas, in ways that are mostly invisible.

                                    If you need to subsidize Iowa farmers (and you might pause and ask yourself where Iowa's position in the primary calendar is, and whether that might be a factor), do it directly; don't mess up a host of other markets in the process.

                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      Perhaps your circle of "environmentalist" friends don't like the current situation regarding ethanol and the corn subsidies that were enacted under the farm bills to encourage them, but please research the legislative history of those subsidies, as well as the reasons why the US adopted the ethanol programs.
                                      They were well-intentioned, but very premature. The ethanol proponents touted them as "cutting edge" but they were new and unproven. Energy and agricultural economists predicted exactly what is now happening, but the environmentalists blew them off as the "pawns" of the bad guys.
                                      As we all know with many of the truly stupid things that our tax money continues to support in the government, once something is part of the system, it never goes away.

                                      It is easy to be an individual environmentalist without recognizing that you support a Big Enviro movement every bit as powerful as Big Ag or Big Business.

                                    2. re: FrankD

                                      You are aware that there are massive subsidies in the EU similar to the ones in the US and that people for example in Germany also paying them through their tax bills. And yes, Americans pay by far the smallest proportion of their incomes on food in the western world.

                                2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                  We own a home in Brazil. You may want to read up on their economy a little more.


                          2. re: Ruth Lafler

                            For the first time in human history, poor people (at least in the US) have a higher incidence of obesity than rich people.

                      2. I've been under the weather for a week--doing lots of TV channel checking while waiting for netflix to arrive--and Walmart is doing a saturation coverage of its new commercial touting "savings on the healthy foods you buy" I've seen the same commercial simultaneously play on the main cable channels dozens of times a day, i.e.: HGTV, TVFN, FLN, LMN, all playing the commercial so that no matter where you hop, you land on it during the commercial break. I've never seen such an intense ad campaign. It's promoting saving money, not sustainably raised food, but maybe that commercial will be next week.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: toodie jane

                          It's not only airing on lifestyle networks it's on Family Channel and the like... (and in Canada too)

                        2. BTW, I thought the whole article was badly done. I thought the Wal-Mart vs. Whole Foods premise missed the mark completely, in that I don't think either one is "the answer." I thought a lot of the stuff about Wal-Mart's agriculture program sounded like it was verbatim from their PR department, and there was a serious lack of anything resembling a critical point of view. And finally, I thought that again, the "taste test" at the end of the article was based on faulty premises and the conclusions drawn from it were illogical.

                          1. I have a very different reaction to this article. Let me try to explain.

                            What I hear in this article is that Walmart sees a competitive advantage to apply its strengths to transform its retail food business. At the same time this has the potential to revive and reinvigorate local agricultural economies in ways that locavore food activists have been dreaming of. Their strength, not well covered in the article, is their amazing purchasing power and distribution network. Remember, during Katrina when governments were paralyzed, Walmart found ways to move goods where they were most needed and get places no one thought could be reached. They have an amazing, powerful, flexible, nimble distribution system. What they appear to be doing is using that strength to weaken some of the advantages currently enjoyed by Big Agra. So they have their own profit driven motives for making this play. But should we care? If the goal is to connect local buyers with local producers, isn't something like this just vindication that the goal makes sense?

                            I agree with Ruth that the comparison to WF misses the point. Walmart is not interested in niche, boutique retailers like WF or even TJ's. They are aiming for bigger markets. (I disagree that this is just promoting over consumption. Industrial food is unhealthy, and this is displacing those foods with healthier goods. Hooray!) If they undercut WF and the like, why should I care? And the taste test was absurd.

                            But I come away agreeing with the quote that “It’s getting harder and harder to hate Walmart.”