Walmart's Fresh Food Makeover
Part of the way Walmart achieves its low prices is by paying rock-bottom wages. In 2005 its workers made about 17.5 percent less than workers at large grocery stores and 14.5 percent less than workers at discount retail chains overall, according to the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley. Its jobs offer little mobility—the company capped wages for many employees in 2006; and 1.5 million current and former female Walmart employees brought a class-action suit that charged it with denying them pay raises and promotions because of gender discrimination (the suit was largely dismantled by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling in June).
Walmart also shifts many of the costs of its low wages onto the public. Missouri, Massachusetts and Wisconsin have shown that the retailer tops the list of employers whose workers depend on publicly funded safety-net healthcare for the poor. A 2004 UC Berkeley study found that the families of California Walmart employees used 38 percent more in public assistance programs like food stamps, subsidized housing and school lunches than those of employees of other large retailers.
When Walmart opens a new store, it holds splashy, camera-ready job fairs. But when a store has been open for a while, staff levels are reduced to a skeleton crew, as managers attempt to meet the company’s demands to sell as much merchandise as they can with as few workers as possible. This business model, coupled with Walmart’s tendency to put other retailers out of business, eliminates three jobs for every two it creates, reducing retail employment by an average of 2.7 percent in each county the chain enters, according to a 2007 study by the Institute for the Study of Labor at the University of Bonn.
Still, despite this mountain of evidence, it’s hard to counter the impression that Walmart brings jobs. Elected officials are under tremendous pressure to create employment opportunities, says Stacy Mitchell, a researcher with the New Rules Project and author of Big-Box Swindle. “They want to be at those ribbon-cutting ceremonies. When you have an empty lot that becomes a store, and now there are 250 people working there, it certainly looks like you’ve created jobs.”
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Moreover, amid the push to bring grocery stores into areas without them, one thing has been missing: firm evidence that opening supermarkets actually helps increase people’s consumption of healthy foods. In fact, research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine a week before Michelle Obama’s July announcement reached the opposite conclusion: “There’s no evidence that building supermarkets will change people’s diets,” said the study’s lead author, Barry Popkin, who directs the Nutrition Transition Program at the University of North Carolina and headed the Institute of Medicine and National Academy of the Sciences committee on the public health effects of food deserts.
For fifteen years, researchers followed more than 5,000 people living in low-income, obesity-prone parts of four cities. They found that affordability, not access, seemed to be the key factor in improving people’s diets. Popkin’s previous research showed that poor people ate the healthiest diet in the 1960s and ’70s. “The poor ate beans and vegetables…. The rich ate meat and butter,” he says. Now, of course, the situation is largely reversed. Instead of creating incentives for new supermarkets, Popkin contends, limited public funds should be helping existing small stores make produce more affordable, as Philadelphia and New York have done.
But if affordability is the key factor in healthy food consumption, couldn’t Walmart, with its cost-cutting prowess, play an important role in making sure poor people can afford healthy food? Recent studies have shown that the chain’s products aren’t always much cheaper than its competitors’, like Target. Lichtenstein says Walmart has a small price advantage over other retailers, but it is “not dramatic.” Even if Walmart is able to offer cheaper apples than its competition, says Lichtenstein, that’s little consolation if the company’s net effect on a community is to depress wages and reduce the number of jobs. “If you want to buy medical insurance or go to college or buy a house, it’s better to have higher wages than cheaper groceries,” he says.
Jennifer Stapleton, assistant director of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Making Change at Walmart campaign, says Walmart as a solution to food deserts is a shortsighted solution to a long-term problem. “Why are there food deserts? Because people are poor,” she says. “Having Walmart come in isn’t creating careers that will lift people out of poverty. It will keep people in poverty.”
Sheelah Muhammad grew up bagging groceries at her father’s supermarket on Chicago’s South Side. Now she’s standing at the counter of Fresh Moves, a city bus that’s been converted into a produce market on wheels. “This is full circle for me,” she says.
The bus could easily fit in a single Walmart aisle, and on a humid day in July is only in its sixth week of operation. But business is brisk. Runs on collards, mustard greens and fruit have already sent staff back to the produce wholesaler twice to replenish the bins that stand where the seats once were. A half-dozen shoppers crowd the bus, inspecting produce.
“It’s a cycle,” says Muhammad, a Northwestern University MBA who used to work for Oprah Winfrey’s philanthropic foundation and founded Fresh Moves with two other community activists. “The chains have been gone for so long, and now they’re trying to get back in,” she says.
In fact, Chicago’s only Walmart Supercenter is just over two miles from where Fresh Moves operates. (A smaller-scale Walmart Express opened elsewhere in the city in July.) Muhammad says she’s not against Walmart’s expansion—the issue of unequal food access is broad enough for multiple approaches. But she thinks community-rooted approaches will have better staying power. “What happens when these stores decide to leave again? Or when they have another shift in corporate strategy?” she asks.
Muhammad’s project is just one of hundreds of community projects that have grown out of the food justice and local food movements and are rebuilding local food infrastructure in underserved areas. Though these projects don’t fit the USDA’s definition and thus do not appear on its food desert map, they’re multiplying fast; at least 1,400 independent grocery stores have opened since 2002, according to the New Rules Project, and the number of farmers’ markets nationwide has more than doubled during that time, USDA data show. Meanwhile, the National Cooperative Business Association reports a “tremendous resurgence of growth in food co-ops”—only 350 such co-ops exist nationwide now, but another 300 are in the planning stages.
One of the best examples of how public policy can nurture these sorts of local food projects and increase food access and jobs along the way is Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative. Since 2004 the program has increased food access for more than 500,000 people and created or saved 5,000 jobs by extending loans and grants for projects that bring fresh food to underserved areas, or help existing retailers expand their healthy food offerings. Though chain retailers aren’t excluded, all the projects it has funded so far have been independent or small regional chains. In 2010 Michelle Obama announced the creation of a federal fund modeled after Pennsylvania’s program. But Congress failed to fund the $400 million per year program this year, so it’s operating with $35 million drawn from existing federal funds. The administration will request an additional $330 million in 2012.
New York City has supported the introduction of produce carts into food deserts and is working to help local bodegas stock fruits and vegetables. A number of programs across the country provide incentives to low-income families to spend at farmers’ markets, such as Michigan’s Double Up Food Bucks. Chicago, in addition to courting large chain grocers, has revamped its urban agriculture policies to encourage city farming and is working with the public health department to increase nutrition education. And many cities, such as Boston, New York and Portland, have added food policy coordinators, responsible for overseeing efforts to increase food access.
But eventually policy-makers must decide whether they will throw their weight behind corporate or local solutions to the grocery gap. The future of the burgeoning local food movement may hinge on whether cities decide to let Walmart in, says Big Box Swindle author Mitchell. If Walmart is able to replicate the dominance it has in suburban and certain metro areas, it may stop local food systems from developing, she warns.
“The larger the presence of Walmart in grocery markets in cities, the fewer opportunities there are for anything else,” she says. That means the chain could prevent the creation of new small businesses. “Starting a small retail store in your neighborhood or getting a job at a factory that is a union job have been two of the really important pathways into the middle class, and those avenues are being cut off by Walmart,” she says.
After a day of selling mustard greens and mangoes from the bus, Dara Cooper, Fresh Moves project manager, hops off to do a little neighborly arm-twisting in a hyperlocal effort to bring healthier food to the neighborhood.
She walks a half-block to the nearest corner store where she’s trying to guilt-trip the manager into carrying healthier food.
Pausing outside, she glares at the windows plastered with advertisements for liquor. “We talk about choices in low-income communities, but we have to think about the environment and how it is shaping our realities,” she says.
Inside, people are lined up to buy cigarettes, chips and beer. The only produce in the place appears to be a half-dozen cans of fruit on a shelf at knee level. The clerk is wedged between a wall of liquor and a bank of candy and studiously avoids Cooper’s eye. With a cherubic smile she sidles up to the counter. “Remember me?”