Do We Have to Make Produce Cheaper – Walmart, the New Farmer’s Market?
Amongst the hats I wear, I wear a hat on the Advisory Board for the forthcoming Financing Farm to Fork Conference being put on by FamilyFarmed.org and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. At more than a few meetings, I supported the question of inviting Walmart to participate in the conference. I think it’s a good thing to have Walmart at the table discussing their place in the local food world. Do I think it’s a good thing for Walmart to be in the local food world. I’d give that a qualified yes, but I’m concerned mostly about the price of fruits and vegetables.
Walmart got much attention yesterday by giving a press conference with First Lady, Michelle Obama. They tauted Walmart’s various initiatives to bring healthier foods to Americans by, well, being the place where Americans could get healthy food. Walmart will attack this issue in a few ways. For one thing, they will build a new type of Walmart, a grocery-storesque Walmart in those arid food desserts. For another thing, they would make healthier food more affordable. And many don’t like these ideas. At the Food Fight, Melanie Warner calls the Walmart-Michelle Obama plan doomed. The doyenne of good food politics, Marian Nestle remains skeptical of Walmart. She wonders about putting smaller Walmart stores into inner cities, saying it sounds good “but is this just a ploy to get Walmart stores into places where they haven’t been wanted? Will the new stores drive mom-and-pop stores out of business? Here too, Walmart is short on details.”
As noted in Food Safety News, “Though Walmart’s pledge to reformulate its brand name products gained the most media attention yesterday, keen food politics observers believe the corporate heavyweight’s commitment to reducing the price of fruits and vegetables is the most radical part of the new plan.” That’s the part that gets me. Not because I doubt Walmart’s ability to goose the supply chain towards cheaper prices, nor do I deny that cheaper food is a good thing. I just question the notion that produce is too expensive. I heard the aforementioned Ms. Nestle on NPR yesterday talking about price of fruits and veg going up 40 percent since 1980, and I saw a quote to that effect today at an article on Rodale.com. Thing is a 40 percent increase in price in thirty plus years is hardly a big deal. And we have no idea where that price growth is coming from. My guess is that any measure of across the board price growth for produce can be attributed to greater acceptance and desire for organic produce. In other words what ever price increase we have seen, stems from the fact that people are desiring more expensive produce. Price is not keeping people away from fruits and vegetables.
I talk about this often. We cannot dismiss the price differences between good food and crap food. A gallon of hormone-y milk can be found for $2.50; local, organic milk is often $4.50 a HALF gallon. Eggs can be 99 cents or 500 cents. How much does Rob Levitt charge for bacon? These are, obviously, not minor differences. The prices of fruits and veg vary depending on at least three things: seasonality, exotic-ness and unique-ness. Produce can be found for as little as a quarter a pound to well up and over $5/lb. It’s not all heirloom tomatoes but neither is it all iceberg lettuce. And let me say this, there are times when the local produce is cheap or cheaper and there is times when the out of state stuff is as cheap. In the summer, Angelo Caputo’s sells Michigan lettuce. In the winter, they sell California lettuce. At all times, the customer pays the same price. It is not produce prices that are causing problems.
People don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables for a number of reasons. Not the least, it takes work making many fruits and vegetables. People turn to convenient food for convenience. Cooking up that squash on the counter is not convenient. So, I fear the consequences of Walmart’s plans. Ringing out efficiencies in fruit and vegetable may lead to the same types of problems apparent in other food production where efficiencies have been rung. Why is that bacon cheaper than Rob Levitt’s. The eggs only 99 cents. Where there is a will there is a way, and when Walmart says we want to pay this much, there are those who will figure out how to do it.
Listen, I’m willing to listen to Walmart’s plans. I’m willing to see what can happen. I want better food to be out there, and I want affordable food. I just want to make sure my food gets made the right way. We can have good fruits and vegetables if we want them. We just have to make sure we want them.