On a bustling Saturday morning at Chicago’s Green City Farmers Market, shoppers fill their canvas bags with organic grains, sauces, pasta and jams. These are staples of the Midwest winter farmers market season.
But they also make up the bulk of Walmart’s new Wild Oats organic line of pantry staples--staples the retailer promises to price at about 25 percent lower than its competitors. Several items, including beans and olive oil, have already hit local shelves.
This kind of affordable organic has been the theoretical dream of the sustainable food community for decades. So then why is the move being greeted by so much suspicion?
Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse and one of the nation’s biggest cheerleaders for organic seasonal food, has real questions about who will be hurt in the quest for cheaper organic.
From WBEZ Chicago, Chewing the Fat is a weekly podcast with food journalists Louisa Chu and Monica Eng. Together they tackle cooking, dining, culture food policy, culinary characters and more.
“It definitely scares me,” she said. “I really feel like, when we are talking about cheap food, that somebody, somewhere is not being paid. And I am pretty certain that the person who is not being paid is the person raising that animal and tending that farm.”
When WBEZ asked Walmart how it planned to source the organic materials for this discounted line, the retailer responded with a statement that:
“We are working with Wild Oats to create a surety of demand which ultimately helps us pass along savings to our customers. We using our scale to deliver quality organic groceries to our customers for less.”
But this equation of greater demand producing lower prices doesn’t add up for folks like organic farmer Harry Carr of Mint Creek Farm in East Central Illinois.
“I think it’s got everybody a bit perplexed,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. I just can’t see Walmart proactively choosing to improve the quality of their food and picking up the price differential because they are nice guys. We know that historically Walmart’s strategy has been to price other retailers out of the market with their size and scope and economies of scale. They took away our main streets in exchange for big boxes and I don’t think people look upon that very kindly.”
Wild Oats CEO Tom Casey says he understands the confusion about how higher demand could create lower prices. But he says the farmers pay is only a small part of the food equation.
He notes the real savings will come from streamlining the now fragmented manufacturing, distribution and retail stages of the organic food chain.
Author and food journalist Ruth Reichl is also skeptical about sourcing, but she can see some real benefits to the move.
“For all the people who want to eat organic food and don’t want pesticides and so forth, it’s a good thing,” Reichl says. “I think for down the road, for making organics mainstream it’s a very good thing. But I think for small farmers who are now raising organic food it could prove disastrous. I think they way they are going to end up doing this is industrial organic and probably a lot of imported organic food.”
Casey won’t say what percentage of imported organic will go into Walmart’s Wild Oats line but he acknowledges: “there are certain products that are difficult to source effectively in the US right now. So we have a limited number of products we source internationally, but that would be typical of anybody sourcing organic products….The key is that these products are organic certified and they have to meet these requirements no matter who’s producing them.”
While some worry that these discounted organics will put small organic family farmers out of business, Casey says that Walmart is simply trying to offer “more choices.”
Jim Slama, president of Family Farmed.org, says he’s not worried about the effect on small farmers because he believes they serve a totally different marketplace.
“I think that someone growing on a family farm is going to be selling at a farmers market or maybe to local restaurants who will pay higher prices or maybe to Whole Foods or Marianos,” he says. “But there is no way they have the scale to sell to Walmart and they are not going to take their price.”
Plus, Slama says, there are real upsides for the environment if Walmart’s demand pushes more farmers to adopt organic practices. These would require them to meet standards that preserve the quality of soil and water.
“I think it’s going to transition quite a bit more land from conventional to organic because its providing new very large markets for organic products,” he says.
Harry Rhodes, who directs a group of Chicago organic farms called Growing Home, also sees pluses in Walmart’s new organic push.
“The more organic options everywhere lead to healthier food choices,” he says. “So I think it’s a win-win. I don’t think it’s competition or danger to anything we’re doing.”
Sean Shatto is the CSA manager for Tomato Mountain Organic. He was at Green City Market last weekend selling tomato sauces, CSA shares and spinach. For now, he takes the long view.
“It might turn people on to paying more attention to their food---maybe,” he says. “And if that happens, then they might say, ‘well I got this organic spinach at Walmart, maybe I’ll go down to the farmers market to see what they’ve got.’ Their jaw will drop the first time they walk by and see that my spinach is $10 a pound. But then I will hand them a leaf and it will taste 10 times better than what they are getting for a $1 a pound at Walmart. And then hopefully they’ll come back.”
With so little information about how the food will be sourced and how consumers will react, it’s hard, even for critics, to draw firm conclusions. But Reichl says that one thing is certain.
“It’s going to change the landscape for organics enormously,” she said. “Being an optimist, I would say that in the future, this is going to be good. But for right now it scares me.”
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