An Unlikely Hero: Wal Mart Supports Sustainable, Local Food

It may be hard to swallow, but despite the fact Walmart has a history of effectively crippling local economies, it seems to be emerging as a hero of local food distribution, rivaling other big time companies like Whole Foods. A recent report in the New York Times, and reports in other news outlets, showcases Walmart's new blue print for supporting local agriculture, called the Heritage Agriculture program. Given the fact that Walmart is the world's largest retailer, their supposed commitment to supporting local food is no small promise, and has the potential to do a lot of good for regional food systems, particularly in terms of supportung mid-sized farms, which have been squeezed out of the equation in many places and are struggling.

Walmart defines local food as food that is grown or produced in the same state as it is sold, and aims to include 9% locally grown foods in its grocery supercenters in the U.S. In Canada, Walmart is proposing an even more ambitious goal: 30% local by 2013. For a major corporation like Walmart, with lots of buying power and infrastructure, those goals aren't as lofty as they might sound. Beyond just buying from local small and medium-sized producers, Walmart's long term agenda is to work with farmers to create a sustainability rating system for their produce that captures environmental sustainability based on waste, chemical, and water use. Furthermore Walmart will educate and counsel farmers on what sorts of things to grow for the market, in accordance to sustainable agriculture practices, basically providing marketing expertise.

While the Heritage Program certainly shifts the focus to local food producers and sustainable agricultural practices that cater to the desires of the Walmart customer, it goes even further than that, and plans to do something truly unique. The use of the word "heritage" alludes to this: Walmart hopes to encourage local farmers to return to growing fruits and vegetables that perhaps used to be grown in a region but are now outsourced to other regions or countries. For instance, maybe someplace like Arkansas used to grow a lot of apples, but now they're all grown elsewhere. By encouraging a return to  traditional growing patterns and practices that would significantly cut down on transportation and storage costs, Walmart can help create a more diverse and healthy local food system.

It will be interesting to see how this all pans out, and if  mid-sized farms really do get a boost from the monster retailer that is so shunned in many small towns for destroying local businesses. But it sounds good, and Walmart does have the resources to pull it off. Perhaps this is the way that the company can offer a sort of restitution, finally doing something good to support sustainable, local farms and regional economies.

photo credit: guerrilla health watch