Michelle Obama and Bill Simon, Wal-Mart's president and CEO, met last week to announce Wal-Mart's plans to reduce the amount of salt and sugar in the food products it sells, and to eliminate transfats completely over the next five years. Wal-Mart's agenda fits well with Mrs. Obama's well intentioned "Let's Move" campaign to reduce childhood obesity.
Over the past year Wal-Mart has also announced plans to incorporate more fresh and local produce into at least some of its 4,300 US based stores, and it has acted on those plans in many locations.
These plans are, at least on the surface, pretty good news for consumers. Nationally, seventy-five percent (75%) of people aged between 17 and 26 are unfit for military service because they don't have a high school diploma, have a criminal record, or have a diet-related disease such as diabetes or obesity. Obviously, something has to be done to ameliorate what is a largely unrecognized crisis.
The big questions are about the impacts on suppliers. We can appreciate that consumers will, overall, be beneficiaries of increased access to healthier, more affordable food. But we also know that Wal-Mart has secured its dominant position on the backs of labor, and by gutting profit margins of its suppliers like the now bankrupt Rubbermaid and Vlasic companies.
Local farmers have an invitation now to become Wal-Mart suppliers and to help Wal-Mart be a "responsible community partner." But if our farmers ultimately succeed in a relationship with Wal-Mart, it will be because they've changed their farms to resemble those of operators who produce poultry for Tyson, George, and other industrial processors. Production may be "fresh and local," but it will also and necessarily be fast production, and on a scale that is driven far more by the plasticity of margins than by the farmer's love of farming, or by her sense of connectivity to her community, her neighbors, or even to what she produces.
Among the discouragements of Mrs. Obama's appearance with Simon is her tone-deafness to the brute fact that One Big Store -- the ultimate aim and end of the free market -- is as sure a destroyer of culture as is One Big Government.