Will Wal-Mart replace the supermarket?

The retailer now owns 25 percent of the grocery market -- and that figure may be climbing

Topics: AlterNet, Wal-Mart, Massachusetts, Tyson, Kraft, Monsanto,

Will Wal-Mart replace the supermarket?
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet When Michelle Obama visited a Walmart in Springfield, Missouri, a few weeks ago to praise the company’s efforts to sell healthier food, she did not say why she chose a store in Springfield of all cities. But, in ways that Obama surely did not intend, it was a fitting choice. This Midwestern city provides a chilling look at where Walmart wants to take our food system.

Springfield is one of nearly 40 metro areas where Walmart now captures about half or more of consumer spending on groceries, according to Metro Market Studies. Springfield area residents spend just over $1 billion on groceries each year, and one of every two of those dollars flows into a Walmart cash register. The chain has 20 stores in the area and shows no signs of slowing its growth. Its latest proposal, a store just south of the city’s downtown, has provoked widespread protest. Opponents say Walmart already has an overbearing presence in the region and argue that this new store would undermine nearby grocery stores, including a 63-year-old family-owned business which still provides delivery for its elderly customers. A few days before the First Lady’s visit, the City Council voted 5-4 to approve what will be Walmart’s 21st store in the community.

As Springfield goes, so goes the rest of the country, if Walmart has its way. Nationally, the retailer’s share of the grocery market now stands at 25 percent. That’s up from 4 percent just 16 years ago. Walmart’s tightening grip on the food system is unprecedented in U.S. history. Even A&P — often referred to as the Walmart of its day — accounted for only about 12 percent of grocery sales at its height in the 1940s. Its market share was kept in check in part by the federal government, which won an antitrust case against A&P in 1946. The contrast to today’s casual acceptance of Walmart’s market power could not be more stark.



Having gained more say over our food supply than Monsanto, Kraft, or Tyson, Walmart has been working overtime to present itself as a benevolent king. It has upped its donations to food pantries, reduced sodium and sugars in some of its store-brand products, and recast its relentless expansion as a solution to “food deserts.” In 2011, it pledged to build 275-300 stores “in or near” low-income communities lacking grocery stores. The Springfield store Obama visited is one of 86 such stores Walmart has since opened. Situated half a mile from the southwestern corner of a census tract identified as underserved by the USDA, the store qualifies as “near” a food desert. Other grocery stores are likewise perched on the edge of this tract. Although Walmart has made food deserts the vanguard of its PR strategy in urban areas, most of the stores the chain has built or proposed in cities like Chicago and Washington D.C. are in fact just blocks from established supermarkets, many unionized or locally owned. As it pushes into cities, Walmart’s primary aim is not to fill gaps but to grab market share.

***

The real effect of Walmart’s takeover of our food system has been to intensify the rural and urban poverty that drives unhealthy food choices. Poverty has a strong negative effect on diet, regardless of whether there is a grocery store in the neighborhood or not, a major 15-year study published in 2011 in the Archives of Internal Medicine found. Access to fresh food cannot change the bottom-line reality that cheap, calorie-dense processed foods and fast food are financially logical choices for far too many American households. And their numbers are growing right alongside Walmart. Like Midas in reverse, Walmart extracts wealth and pushes down incomes in every community it touches, from the rural areas that produce food for its shelves to the neighborhoods that host its stores.

Walmart has made it harder for farmers and food workers to earn a living. Its rapid rise as a grocer triggered a wave of mergers among food companies, which, by combining forces, hoped to become big enough to supply Walmart without getting crushed in the process. Today, food processing is more concentrated than ever. Four meatpackers slaughter 85 percent of the nation’s beef. One dairy company handles 40 percent of our milk, including 70 percent of the milk produced in New England. With fewer buyers, farmers are struggling to get a fair price. Between 1995 and 2009, farmers saw their share of each consumer dollar spent on beef fall from 59 to 42 cents. Their cut of the consumer milk dollar likewise fell from 44 to 36 cents. For pork, it fell from 45 to 25 cents and, for apples, from 29 to 19 cents.

Onto this grim reality, Walmart has grafted a much-publicized initiative to sell more locally grown fruits and vegetables. Clambering aboard the “buy local” trend undoubtedly helps Walmart’s marketing, but, as Missouri-based National Public Radio journalist Abbie Fentress Swanson reported in February, “there’s little evidence of small farmers benefiting, at least in the Midwest.” Walmart, which defines “local” as grown in the same state, has increased its sales of local produce mainly by relying on large industrial growers. Small farmers, meanwhile, have fewer opportunities to reach consumers, as independent grocers and smaller chains shrink and disappear.

Food production workers are being squeezed too. The average slaughterhouse wage has fallen 9 percent since 1999. Forced unpaid labor at food processing plants is on the rise. Last year, a Louisiana seafood plant that supplies Walmart was convicted of forcing employees to work in unsafe conditions for less than minimum wage. Some workers reported peeling and boiling crawfish in shifts that spanned 24 hours.

The tragic irony is that many food-producing regions, with their local economies dismantled and poverty on the rise, are now themselves lacking grocery stores. The USDA has designated large swaths of the farm belt, including many agricultural areas near Springfield, as food deserts.

***

One might imagine that squeezing farmers and food workers would yield lower prices for consumers. But that hasn’t been the case. Grocery prices have been rising. There are multiple reasons for this, but corporate concentration is at least partly to blame. For most foods, the spread between what consumers pay and how much farmers receive has been widening. Food processors and big retailers are pocketing the difference. Even as Walmart touts lower prices than its competitors, the company’s reorganization of our food system has had the effect of raising grocery prices overall.

As Walmart stores multiply, fewer families can afford to eat well. The company claims it stores bring economic development and employment, but the empirical evidence indicates otherwise. A study published in 2008 in the Journal of Urban Economics examined about 3,000 Walmart store openings nationally and found that each store caused a net decline of about 150 jobs (as competing retailers downsized and closed) and lowered total wages paid to retail workers. Other research by the economic consulting firm Civic Economics has found that, when locally owned businesses are replaced by big-box stores, dollars that once circulated in the community, supporting other businesses and jobs, instead leak out. These shifts may explain the findings of another study, published in Social Science Quarterly in 2006, which cut straight to the bottom line: neighborhoods where Walmart opens end up with higher poverty rates and more food-stamp usage than places where the retailer does not expand.

This year, Walmart plans to open between 220 and 240 stores in the U.S., as it marches steadily on in its quest to further control the grocery market. Policymakers at every level, from city councilors to federal antitrust regulators, should be standing in its way. Very few are. Growing numbers of people, though, are drawing the line, from the Walmart employees who have led a string of remarkable strikes against the company, to the coalition of small business, labor, and community groups that recently forced Walmart to step back from its plans to unroll stores across New York City.

Back in Springfield, as Michelle Obama was delivering her remarks, framed by a seductive backdrop of oranges and lemons, a citizens group called Stand Up to Walmart was also at work, launching a referendum drive to overturn the City Council’s vote and block Walmart from gaining any more ground in the city.

Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance , where she directs an initiative on independent business. She is the author of  Big-Box Swindle and also produces a popular monthly newsletter, the Hometown Advantage Bulletin Catch her recent TEDx Talk: Why We Can't Shop Our Way to a Better Economy .

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>