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I winced yesterday when James Gavin, chair of the Partnership for a Healthier America, said he’d like to see Walmart double its U.S. store count. He was speaking at Michelle Obama’s event announcing that several retailers will open stores in “food deserts.” It was a sort of half-jokey remark, but, still, in a conversation about food in America, the suggestion that Walmart should have an even bigger role in our food system is pretty disturbing. This is a company that already captures 25 percent of grocery sales nationally and more than 50 percent in some metro areas.
It’s remarkable the way Walmart has managed to maneuver itself on this issue. If you were to rank the factors that have contributed to the disappearance of neighborhood grocery stores over the last two decades, Walmart would be a pretty formidable contender for the top spot. Today it is garnering heroic headlines for saying it will bring fresh food to places that lack it.
Those headlines could not be more valuable to Walmart right now. The chain has staked its U.S. growth strategy on expanding into big cities, like New York and Washington, where many people believe in ideas contrary to the company’s vision, like a middle class and living wages. Walmart sees underserved neighborhoods as potential points of entry, a way to edge around the opposition and get its camel’s nose under the tent.
Michelle Obama’s event did make some mention of independent grocers, but as an afterthought that had little impact on the Walmart-centric news stories that followed. After Gavin touted the promises of three big chains — Walmart, Walgreens, and Supervalu’s Save-A-Lot (how is it that no unionized supermarket chains were included?) — to open or remodel stores “in or near” underserved communities, he went on to mention commitments by three independent retailers.
Independent grocers should have been at the center of this announcement. After all, independent food retailers, including co-ops and farmers markets, have been instrumental in the success of the only program so far to make a real dent in the problem, the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing initiative. Of the 93 stores created or expanded by the initiative to date, almost all are independently or cooperatively owned.