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Thursday, Nov. 12, 2009 05:59 am

Is Wal-Mart the new local?

Superstore chain seeks to tap local food movement

Sara Frey, president of Frey Farm Produce, speaks about selling local produce to Wal-Mart.
Patrick Yeagle
Sara Frey, president of Frey Farm Produce, speaks about selling local produce to Wal-Mart.
Patrick Yeagle

As Wal-Mart seeks to rebrand itself as the socially-conscious superstore, the effects of the retail giant’s changes remain to be seen.

At a Nov. 10 press conference in the south Springfield Wal-Mart on Lejune Drive, company representatives announced the store is committed to selling local produce.

“For Wal-mart, health and wellness and being able to provide affordable, locally-grown products and services is a big thing,” said Wal-Mart spokesman John Bisio.

Wal-Mart, a multi-national corporation that reported profit of $3.45 billion in 2008, calls itself the largest purchaser of locally-grown produce in the country, estimating that more than 70 percent of its produce is locally grown. In the past two years, the company says it has increased by 50 percent the number of local produce suppliers from which it purchases, with an expected $400 million going to local growers nationwide in 2009.

“Buying local has always been a part of Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart has been buying local ever since its founding,” said Zelina Bazan, local sourcing buyer for Wal-Mart. The company has earned a reputation for importing large volumes of goods from foreign countries such as China, however, even being featured in a 2004 Frontline PBS report titled, “Is Wal-Mart good for America?”

Wal-Mart says the push for local produce helps it meet its environmental goals by reducing “food miles,” the distance food travels from the farm to the dinner table. It also touts the positive economic effect of buying local produce.

Mark Meyer, owner of Meyer Produce in Manito, 50 miles north of Springfield, said he has worked with Wal-Mart for about four years.

“As I’ve delivered more stuff to the Wal-Mart stores, my business has grown,” he said. “It’s been a great opportunity. It’s good for the local economy as far as employing a local workforce and keeping our local communities alive.”

But Wal-Mart’s idea of local does not necessarily mean the farm just outside of town. According to Wal-Mart and the Illinois Department of Agriculture, anything grown within Illinois is considered local.

Sara Frey, president of Frey Farm Produce, said her company got a fair price for the produce it provides to Wal-Mart. Frey’s company is based near Mt. Vernon in southern Illinois and supplies produce to retailers in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Georgia and Florida.

Tom Jennings, director of IDOA, said the in-state definition of local helps keep dollars in Illinois and promotes jobs here. He pointed to IDOA’s “Illinois: Where Fresh Is” logo, which highlights Illinois-grown agricultural products.

“We really recognize what Wal-Mart has done in local partnerships with our fresh produce growers,” Jennings said. “We get shelf space in Wal-Mart, so I think that’s tremendous in terms of the economic benefit for Illinois food companies, and I appreciate their efforts to expand that in Illinois.”

Still, at least one local grocer isn’t buying the hype.

Stu Kainste, manager of Food Fantasies natural grocery store, said Wal-Mart’s program is a step in the right direction, but the company’s definition of “local” may not match that of his customers. He says terms like “local” and “organic” have been diluted by corporations to include products that are anything but.

“I think shoppers here, by and large, are aware of the difference,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to be fooled by that kind of stuff.”

Kainste said Wal-Mart is simply trying to tap into the local food movement.

“They’re just jumping on the bandwagon,” Kainste said. “It’s a hot concept right now, and you can say anything you want. You can say something is natural, and it could be anything.”

Even so, he expressed hope that Wal-Mart’s efforts could help bring the trend into the mainstream.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this wasn’t a niche industry, and people were connected to their food?” Kainste asked. “But I’m not sure that Wal-Mart saying ‘local’ is going to help that much.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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