Posted by: SmithaM | September 25, 2011

Wal-Mart stores for Food Deserts?

The complexity of issues contributing to lack of fresh food access can provide opportunities for grocery and supermarket chains to collaborate with public officials and fresh food advocates. However, these opportunities may not translate into effective solutions.

The association of Wal-Mart with fresh food access in urban food desert raises numerous concerns that look beyond just the availability of fresh food. Some of these include the economic impacts on the community where Wal-Mart locates, the erosion of community self-reliance from the competition to small businesses, and the impacts of labor and wage policies of Wal-Mart. It might also be of concern to fresh food advocates when USDA’s definition of Food Deserts seems to encourage financial initiatives for big, for-profit supermarkets instead of giving primary importance to building and maintaining a robust food system with a mix of food outlets.

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.

… 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.

… 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.

…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…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…

Read the complete news article and discuss.

With affordability being more, if not just as important as access, how can sustainable and robust food systems solutions be planned in low income communities? What could be the potential impact of smaller Wal-Mart stores (Express Wal-Mart) in urban areas?

Read the news article reporting expansion plans for mini Wal-Mart stores and discuss.


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