Walmart's Fresh Food Makeover
On a map of “food deserts” in Chicago, a red bow-tie-shaped splotch covers parts of Englewood, a historically working-class neighborhood on the South Side.
I’m driving through that zone with the man leading the city’s efforts to bring fresh food to communities that need it—Mike Simmons, the policy director for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. We pass brick houses, many decent and neat, but others boarded-up casualties of the foreclosure crisis. On a side street, two men push a shopping cart piled with heating ducts and other metal fixtures, likely stripped from vacant buildings. Empty lots dot blocks lined with storefront churches and chicken-wing stands. We pass a couple with a cooler and a half-dozen pump bottles for snow-cone flavoring. We pass many corner stores with signs that read Food and Liquor.
We don’t pass any supermarkets.
The residents here are just a fraction of the 23.5 million Americans living in areas with no easy access to fresh food, according to government estimates. As cities like Chicago try to expand food access, vanquishing such areas—now labeled food deserts—has also become a matter of national policy. The Obama administration has pledged to eradicate food deserts by 2017, in the hopes that increasing access to healthy food will stem the country’s obesity and diet-related-disease epidemics and create new jobs in the process.
In this effort, some policy-makers have turned to a surprising—and controversial—corporate partner: Walmart.
In July Michelle Obama announced a joint plan by Walmart, Walgreens and SuperValu, along with three regional chains, to open 1,500 new stores in food deserts across the country. Walmart, the nation’s largest grocery retailer, plans to open more than 275 new stores by 2016 in neighborhoods it claims are underserved. At least a dozen will be in Chicago, where the giant was one of a handful of chains invited to the mayor’s food desert summit. There, the city touted various spots, including one on the fringes of Englewood’s food desert, as ripe for development. Simmons is in talks with the chains and working to put together packages of financial incentives, zoning amendments and other accommodations to seal the deals.
“When they know that’s the entree that we’re bringing to them, it tends to yield a very productive conversation,” he says.
As Walmart positions itself as an expedient solution to the food desert problem, critics question whether a retailer known for fostering a low-wage economy and driving small stores and union groceries out of business is a viable ally in the effort to help struggling communities get access to affordable, decent food. The food desert problem, these critics contend, is more about poverty than grocery stores. Some argue that the retailer’s newfound interest in food deserts is a public relations push designed to help it finally gain entry into lucrative urban markets from which it has long been excluded, thanks to grassroots opposition.
LaDonna Redmond, a longtime food justice advocate who leads the Food and Justice Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, puts it bluntly: “Walmart is using the term ‘food desert’ as a Trojan horse to get into our communities and bring about more corporate control of our food system.”
* * *
The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income census tract in which more than 500 people or 33 percent of the population live at least a mile from a supermarket that does at least $2 million in annual sales. In rural areas, anyone living ten miles from such a store is in the desert.
But some community food activists say this measure defines the problem in a way that means that only large grocery stores can solve it. It does not account for the grassroots food infrastructure, made up of food hubs, farmers’ markets, co-ops and farmstands, which have multiplied in recent years as the local food movement has gained traction.
“If we define it based just on USDA data, it’s pretty much not just supermarkets but chains,” says Daniel Block, a Chicago State University geography professor who has studied and mapped his city’s food deserts. Some cities, such as Chicago, use more detailed data to map their food deserts.
The term food desert is also contested—it masks the structural causes of unequal access to food, such as racial, social and economic inequality, says Orrin Williams, executive director of Chicago’s Center for Urban Transformation. “The term food desert creates a notion in people’s heads that the only problem is food and food access. But there are no bookstores in these neighborhoods. There are no cultural institutions, no arts institutions. The schools are in bad shape, and people have fears, founded or unfounded, for their safety,” he says.
Calling neighborhoods deserts may also reinforce the idea that poor communities have no resources on which to build and need to be rescued by some outside force, says Williams. Other terms have been proposed: “food swamp,” “grocery gap,” “food red-lining,” “food apartheid.” But as some activists contest the food desert label, many policy-makers and grocery chains have run with the term—and none more than Walmart.
A segment of the Walmart Report, a series of videos produced for the company’s New York City web page, opens with a polished yet hip host asking, “Do you know what a food desert is?” With a sympathetic grimace she says, “Well, chances are, you’re living in one.”
She details the health risks of living in a neighborhood where double bacon cheeseburgers are easier to get than broccoli. Then the tape cuts to an image of young girls of color walking in a gritty tableau of tire shops and smokestacks. Three million New Yorkers live in food deserts, she says, and Walmart wants to change that by opening new stores.
The chain has been trying to crack New York City’s tantalizingly large market for years. So far, public opposition has kept it out. But its new focus on food deserts, Walmart-watchers say, is part of a charm offensive aimed at winning over urban consumers so Walmart can enter the blue cities on the coasts and Chicago, where buying power is concentrated.
Walmart is struggling domestically, and cities are its only chance for US expansion. The chain is in no danger of going out of business, or even losing money, but its business model has always depended on rapid growth, explains historian Nelson Lichtenstein, author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business. But that growth has slowed to a crawl. Walmart’s stock prices have been flat for a decade, and its US sales have declined for nine quarters in a row. Its core customer base, those with household incomes of $30,000 to $60,000, has yet to recover from the recession. Production costs are going up as oil and commodity prices rise and the Chinese yuan gains on the dollar. The company has also so fully saturated suburban and rural markets that to open more stores in these areas would mean cannibalizing its own business.
At its 2010 shareholders meeting, Bill Simon, CEO of Walmart U.S., outlined plans to enter urban markets through “less expensive, less intrusive stores.” On average these stores are about a fifth the size of the chain’s trademark hangar-sized Supercenters; they range from 3,000 to 62,000 square feet and are modeled after the company’s stores in Latin America. They are easier to fit into urban areas where real estate is tight, and they may generate less opposition than the larger stores.
But resistance to Walmart in blue-state cities has had less to do with the store’s footprint than with its low wages and impact on local business. So over the past several years Walmart has been reinventing itself as more cosmopolitan and urbane. It hired Leslie Dach, a former staffer to Al Gore and Ted Kennedy, as vice president of corporate affairs. It has made high-profile sustainability efforts and charitable donations in dozens of urban markets. The company endorsed the Obama administration’s healthcare plan. Dach even went on The Colbert Report in January to talk about the company’s plans for cutting produce prices.
And since Walmart has positioned itself as a key player in eradicating food deserts and creating jobs in poor neighborhoods, it’s landed its greatest public relations coup yet: in January, in a historically black Washington neighborhood where the chain wants to open stores, Michelle Obama stood before a giant Walmart banner and overflowing produce bins and endorsed the chain’s new plan to cut prices on healthy foods and open stores in food deserts.
Walmart’s public opinion numbers have risen in recent years, Lichtenstein says. But the charm offensive hasn’t entirely blunted the opposition. A Washington coalition of labor unions, small businesses and clergy is trying to force the chain to sign a community benefits agreement requiring it to observe wage, hiring and environmental standards. Similar groups in New York are fighting to keep the giant out entirely.
Along with better access to food, Walmart emphasizes how it will bring jobs to urban communities in dire need of them. But evidence suggests that Walmart’s expansion into poor urban neighborhoods won’t lift people out of poverty; it may even deepen the crisis by depressing wages and replacing existing jobs with lower-paid ones, as union and independent businesses fold or cut costs to compete with the chain.
Grocery store jobs were once an avenue to the lower tiers of the middle class—if a worker held a union job for twenty years, he or she would have a decent pension and be able to afford a house, says Lichtenstein. Those days are dwindling, as Walmart expands and other chains emulate its model. “The new standard is clearly a cut below what had been the case when the dominant players in the industry were unionized grocery stores,” he says.
* * *