Walmart Hosts a “Farmer’s Market,” Avoids Most Farmers

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jul 22, 2009 4:20PM

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Walmart will be hosting a “Fresh Farmer’s Market” Saturday at the site of their proposed store in Chatham, at 83rd and Stewart. Press releases were sent to local news outlets, and the Tribune’s story on the market remained on their site’s front page all day yesterday. Could it be true? Could Walmart actually be getting involved with the community and promoting products grown here, rather than in China or Mexico? Or is this just another shot in the ongoing battle between Walmart and the City Council? (Ed. Note: A Sun-Times op-ed today weighs in favor of a Walmart in Chatham. — CS)

It’s true that some of the produce will be locally grown. Tara Stewart, Walmart’s regional director of media relations, was kind enough to give us a list of many of the growers involved in this project, and indeed, most of them are located in the tri-state area. However, when their press materials bragged about Walmart’s “signature low prices,” we became a bit suspicious. Is this a Farmer’s Market as we know it, or is it a produce stand run by the world’s largest retailer? “All the produce is sourced, delivered, and sold by Walmart,” Stewart confirmed. Does this matter, if the products are “sourced” from the Midwest?

Well, yes, at least if you’re the City of Chicago. Few of the growers listed would qualify to participate in an official Chicago Farmer’s Market. For example, Westcott Orchards (or “Westcott Agri Products”) boasts about their “strategic relationships with quality growers and processors around the globe” and informs potential buyers that they “source 'new crop' fruit products from as far away as New Zealand, Chile, South Africa and Australia to ensure our customers have fresh fruit on a year round basis.” While they also have an orchard in Minnesota, this is hardly a small, local farm. Similarly, Bushman’s Potatoes offers “year-round potato and onion availability” and ships from their “vast acres across the U.S,” including sites in California, Florida and yes, Michigan and Wisconsin. They include a link to Dole on their website. And forget about organic certification.

The City of Chicago farmer’s market guidelines specify that growers must grow 100% of the products they sell - no reselling or distribution. Small, individual farms are given preference even over moderately sized co-ops, and when was the last time you saw a Dole Pineapple at a Chicago farmer’s market?

Given the dearth of grocery retailers on the south side, we support any effort to bring fresh produce into the area, especially at prices people can afford. Walmart is donating all the proceeds of the market to the Chatham Business Assocation, which is also admirable. We would love to see Walmart include a significant amount of locally produced food in any future stores. But calling this a "Farmer’s Market” is obfuscation of the worst kind. Farmer’s markets are meant to bring fresh, local products into the city, improving health and nutrition while creating business for local companies and providing a living to local families. There are a small but growing number of actual farmer’s markets opening in underserved areas. We worry that any entry by Walmart into this arena may actually hurt these efforts.