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Walmart Vindicated

March 1, 2010

I shop at Walmart and I am unashamed.

Let me take that one step further.  I buy most of my family’s food at Walmart, because it is comparable to or better than what I can get elsewhere and a fraction of the cost.

Now if you are picking your jaw up off the floor, and think that I must be out of my head, may I direct your attention to the latest issue of The Atlantic.  Yeah, we actually get magazine subscriptions, but you can read the relevant article here.  Corby Kummer visited the grocery section of a Walmart Supercenter and came away thinking that it held its own against Whole Foods.

This, by the way, is the same Corby Kummer who wrote the book on the Slow Food movement.  It is called The Pleasures of Slow Food: Celebrating Authentic Traditions, Flavors, and Recipes. So while I have long believed in the quality of food at Walmart, it is more than just a little bit surprising to hear it from him.

It’s a long article.  Well, not long for The Atlantic, but over 2,000 words.  So if you don’t have the time to read it, I’ll give you a bit more of a synopsis.  But it is still well worth a read.

Mr. Kummer decided to confirm his evaluation of Walmart’s produce with a blind tasting, and gathered a bunch of local-food experts in Austin, Texas to taste two versions of dishes prepared by a local restaurant.  One version would use Walmart’s ingredients and the other version would use Whole Foods’ ingredients.  This battle would be fought on Whole Foods’ home turf.  Austin, after all, contains the corporate headquarters of the natural foods juggernaut.

So, how did it work out?

The tasters were surprised when the results were unblinded at the end of the meal and they learned that in a number of instances they had adamantly preferred Walmart produce.  And they weren’t entirely happy.

Walmart won the first course, which consisted of bowls of almonds and pieces of fried goat cheese with red-onion jam and honey.  I personally found this amazing especially because the only thing approximating fresh goat cheese at Walmart was Alouette.

Walmart also won the second course, which was a salad of spring greens dressed with a sherry vinaigrette.

The Walmart chicken sounded pretty much disgusting (and I cannot say any of their meat has ever been remotely appealing to me) so Whole Foods walked away with a third-course win.

Whole Foods dominated dessert on the strength of their house brand of vanilla.

There is a lot more from the article that goes beyond just the quality of the food and discusses what Walmart is doing to revive local agriculture.  Perhaps that would make for a good follow up post.  The net takeaway was that even the stores harshest critics find it harder and harder to hate the mass merchandiser. But while we are on the topic of food quality, I thought I would share a few examples from my own experience.

After my recent concern about GMO corn in all my food, I found at Walmart a loaf of Heidelberg 100% whole wheat sandwich bread, baked in Herkimer, NY.  The bread contains just four ingredients (flour, water, salt and yeast) and is delicious as my morning toast.

It is important to me to buy organic apples.  In general I make a special trip to our local food co-op to get these.  But on my last trip they had organic fujis at Walmart that had a significantly better texture than our last batch of apples from the coop.

I even found cream that was just cream. That is something many of our local supermarkets do not carry. [Mrs. Fussy thinks I need to explain this further, but I am counting on people to click on the link.]

If you haven’t been to a Walmart lately, it is high time to give them a second look.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    March 1, 2010 10:37 am

    Daniel B, in an earlier post you mentioned feeling guilty about having some frozen veg in your freezer because they weren’t local. Now you buy apples out of season from, where, Chile? I’m not criticizing, I’m just saying.

  2. March 1, 2010 1:41 pm

    I just can’t do it. Not like everyone treats their employees well all of the time, but Wal Mart… I just can’t support ’em.

    And while I still live on a budget, I don’t patronize them or another local grocery store. I’m sure life might be a little more easier if I did, but darnit, I’ve got like 1 principle and I’m sticking with it – don’t shop at places that treat their employees or customers badly.

  3. Afsal permalink
    March 1, 2010 4:11 pm

    I agree with Albany Jane, my objection to walmart is more about labor practices than food quality. And the fact that I live in ‘we pretend to hate big box retail’ San Francisco, so the closest walmart is at least 30min drive away.

  4. Ellen Whitby permalink
    March 1, 2010 10:10 pm

    On the few occasions that I shop at Walmart, it’s with great reluctance and discomfort. I’ve read a lot about their labor practices and about the way the presence of a Walmart can destroy the color of the local landscape but more and more of my decisions need to be based on finances. For the most part, you can’t get better prices than at Walmart.

    I believe it was you, Profussor, who said that it isn’t the consumers who decide whether the big box retailers succeed or not, it’s the manufacturer’s by allowing their merchandise to be sold at the price set by Walmart. Manufacturer’s need to step in and say “here’s what we can sell it for” and then Target and Price Chopper and Hannaford and even the Coop would be on a more level playing field. But when I see my favorite yogurt at the Coop for $1.29 a cup and that very same yogurt at Walmart for less than $1, why would I be compelled to spend the extra at the Coop? Because it’s local? While the Coop offers tremendous value for certain things (the cheesemongers are unbelievably knowledgeable, for example), my resources (financial and otherwise) are limited and as the Minister of Shopping in my family, it’s my job to use those limited resources efficiently.

    I haven’t ever liked the produce at the local Walmart. But it’s nice to know that the store is being recognized and getting credit where it’s due. And while Walmart gets lots of bad press for their practices, there is no shortage of other businesses (big box and other) that take advantage of the loopholes and squeeze as much as they can to serve their own interests.

    Thanks for the information, Profusser.

  5. March 2, 2010 1:55 am

    Your point that food of good quality can be bought at lower prices at Walmart than at other vendors is completely valid.

    However, do I want to live in a post modern wasteland of Walmarts (we already kind of do, but I always strive to ignore reality)? I don’t. Why, I ask, is Walmart able to offer those foods at such good prices? Do you really thing that those prices will continue to be so low once all competition has been eliminated? Are you imagining that Walmart has a shred of altruistic virtue that is causing them to offer low prices?

    The points in the preceding paragraph are all so played out and common that they are considered trite and naive by most. But they are crucially, achingly valid. I am as equally guilty of patronizing chains, Walmart’s, Targets, etc… as the next man, but thank heavens and knock on wood, I have the disposable income to blow money at some pricier purveyors of food on occasion. I fear that patronizing what is accessible, affordable, and easy now is irreparably damaging the choice that future generations will have when shopping for food. Can I offer any solutions or constructive advice as to how to change our present commercial situation, no. So I guess what I have written here should be considered a lament of sorts.

    By the nature of my job, I spend hours upon hours in the rural Hudson river valley, driving around and viewing some of the most fertile farmland in the world. It just makes me sad that we don’t often get the opportunities to experience the benefits of this fact.

    Wow, see where a six pack and mentioning Walmart can take my ramblings late at night…

  6. March 2, 2010 10:55 am

    Reading the article in The Atlantic, I didn’t come away from it feeling like it vindicated Walmart. I felt like it raised some interesting points and gave me some food for thought, so to speak. I still will not shop at Walmart for many of the reasons cited in the comments above. And I thought the comparison with Whole Foods was a bit much as I do not wish to shop at Whole Foods either. I’m more of a Trader Joe’s/Farmer’s Market/BJ’s kind of girl.

    This is just an observation and may be off base but I am willing to bet that a lot of people who admit to shopping at Walmart and say it’s because of the values make a lot less money than my partner and I do and we are raising a family of five on one income and we do not go to Walmart. And I think it’s safe to say we eat pretty well.

  7. March 2, 2010 1:29 pm

    Gosh, Daniel, when I first peeked over here I didn’t get a chance to look around much, so I didn’t even realize that you were local to me, too! Yay! But, also, dang, my Google Reader is getting more and more unmanageable. . . .

  8. May 5, 2011 3:46 pm

    I caught your conversation on twitter where you linked back to this post.

    I worked for Wal-Mart for two years while I was in college. They were absolutely horrible to me as an employer. In fact, they recently settled a class-action lawsuit in NY related to their treatment of employees.

    In fairness – that was years ago (94-96) so maybe they’ve improved. But at that time, they were chauvinistic, racist and unfair. They disregarded labor laws in terms of breaks and paid vs unpaid time off.

    When I worked there, I shopped there, because I needed to save money. Since walking out of the store in 1996, I’ve not gone back unless I was with someone else who was spending their money.

  9. Residual Ninja permalink
    May 5, 2011 6:48 pm

    Ok, got off my lazy duff and pulled up the citations:

    Tons of allegations of lower pay and fewer promotions for women: Just the facts on their face are pretty damning. I just saw a research presentation at the NYstate PolSci Assoc that said women are woefully underrepresented in management across all stores, overlooked for promotions frequently.

    As for the general labor exploitation:
    Now, I worked at Macy’s as a kid (yick) in the Children’s section, and we had some of the worst problems with theft of all the departments in the store. But we were never locked in. My god. Com’on people, does TRIANGLE FIRE mean nothing to these people?

    So there’s just a couple specific examples. Overall, WalMart has poor labor policies. Anecdotally, a best friend worked there as a kid and says every day was hell. Some jobs are harder than others. But there’s no call for that. Really.

  10. May 6, 2011 11:18 am

    It looks like I already responded to this thread but it was more about the specific food comparison you posted about than my ethical reasons for not shopping at Walmart.

    First I want to say (for those unfamiliar, this is in response to a conversation on Twitter in which I stated that I do not shop at Walmart for ethical reasons in a conversation about BJ’s, where I do shop) I didn’t bring up my ethical boycott of Walmart to start a debate or convince anyone not to shop there. That’s not my place. My decisions and the way I live my life are personal to me and my values.

    I have read a lot about this subject and I avoid Walmart for similar reasons that have been posted above. I can lend you my DVD copy of Walmart, The High Cost of Low Prices. You can also do an internet search of Walmart to find reasons some people choose not to shop there. Sorry if this comes across as a cop out but I don’t want to debate Walmart with anyone any more that I would want to debate why breast milk is better than formula. It just works for me, you do what works for you.

    • JenGonroff permalink
      May 6, 2011 12:39 pm

      Also linking back to the twitter conversation. Several years ago WM had their buildings/land owned by a separate WM company which was based in DE. This allowed them to dodge millions in real estate taxes across the US – I believe this loop has now been closed in NYS.

      In that same vein, the Wilton Walmart (which is my local WM) sued to have their assessment lowered by 60%, so they could pay lower taxes., which is why I rarely shop there.

      Price Chopper in Saratoga also challenged their assessments for their 2 city stores (but not their Wilton store), and lost, but still cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars. I didn’t shop at PC for years after that lawsuit, and still rarely shop there.

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