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Dreams of the Local Commissariat

Wal-Mart, Food Deserts and Genuine Sovereignty

by DEVON G. PEÑA

Let us begin with a "defining moment," courtesy of the Oxford World Dictionary:

Commissariat (k?m??s??r??t)

Definition: chiefly Military department for the supply of food and equipment.

Origin: late 16th century (as a Scots legal term denoting the jurisdiction of a commissary, often spelled commissariot): from French commissariat, reinforced by medieval Latin commissariatus, both from medieval Latin commissarius ‘person in charge’, from Latin committere ‘entrust’

How does this relate to the news cycle? Well, on January 20, Walmart announced plans to reformulate the ingredients of their in-house or private brand processed foods. An estimated 60 percent of the company’s annual grocery revenues are currently tied to the sale of processed food items. It is therefore expected that this formula change will place pressure on other private suppliers to follow suit.

This is perhaps the single most significant news story emerging in the corporate agrifood business sector with implications for food sovereignty and food justice movements across the world. Indeed, the company is touting its plan as a response to Michelle Obama’s call on the agrifood industry to clean-up its act of poisoning our nation’s children with highly processed foods. She has specifically called on companies to reformulate processed foods by reducing sugar, sodium, and fat content. Apparently, the company is making much of its efforts to listen to critics.

Walmart executives announced they plan to reduce the sodium content of processed foods by a quarter and eliminate all added sugars across many selected items in their private brand lines of processed foods by 2015. They also announced a plan to eliminate all remaining trans-fats in their private brand lines. These would include items like luncheon meat, yogurt, salad dressing, and juice and soda products. Of course, critics — including Marion Nestle — already note that these reductions will still largely result in unhealthy amounts of sodium and sugar in processed foods. The reformulations will still exceed the recommended daily intake of these additives by 50 to 70 percent when seen in the context of three meals per day.

The First Lady has also been calling for increased access by all consumers to fresh fruits and vegetables. This is widely seen as representing an effort to mobilize support to address the role that "food deserts" play in the nation’s unequal geography of hunger and malnutrition in both urban and rural areas. The social science community has been studying food deserts at least since Robert Gottlieb first used the term in a 1996 report prepared for the University of California Transportation Center on strategies for food-related transportation in low-income, transit-dependent communities. Food deserts can be defined as residential areas that lack grocery stores, farmers markets, or other places where residents may shop for or grow their own fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, and other unprocessed foods. Food deserts are characterized by a preponderance of cheap and unhealthy fast foods or mini-market and convenience stores that sell processed foods at inflated prices. Finally, food deserts are also typified by a lack of privately-owned cars and limited public transportation. There is no easy way to get fresh healthy food to the mouths of the people living in a food desert.

Walmart’s plan includes changes in new store locations that would allow it to operate in urban core or inner-city neighborhoods that are currently harmed by food desert conditions. There has been widespread opposition, at least in Southern California, to the opening of ‘mega-stores’ in the inner-city. The ecological footprint would have to be greatly down-sized for these stores to become acceptable in many communities. The Walmart supply chain would seek to source and stock more local fruits and vegetables. How it will do this and also address social justice concerns of farm workers and the protection of endangered small farms with heritage and heirloom crops remains unclear.

Walmart stores are predominantly located in suburban or rural areas and, according to my own estimates, their current revenue from sales of fresh fruits and vegetables relies on national or globalized commodity chains for at least 80 percent of all perishable fresh foods on their shelves. Over the past 2 to 3 years, Walmart has featured ‘local foods’ as seasonal niche products in some stores including one in Alamosa, Colorado that I have personally visited. The past two summers (in 2009 and 2010), that store was selling English peas produced and supplied by organic acequia farmers from the San Luis, Colorado area located about 45 miles away. Locally-sourced corn, potatoes, Mexican calabacitas, and other seasonal vegetables are also sold at the Alamosa store.

Walmart executives clearly want us to see their plan as an honest and thoughtful effort to address the geography of environmental racism in the agrifood system while turning as much as possible to local sources and suppliers. They claim to recognize the disparate nature of the conditions in food deserts and thus aim for policies tempered by the fact that food deserts are predominantly located in low-income and/or people of color communities.

Several critical issues are at stake in making sense of the Walmart plan to reformulate processed foods and transform its supply chain toward more local sourcing of fruits and vegetables as well as meat and fish. One issue is differential access to fresh food and commodity prices. Marion Nestle noted in a recent NPR interview that the price of processed food has decreased by 40 percent since 1980 while the price of fresh fruits and vegetables increased by 40 percent during the same period.

How Walmart goes about cutting prices for fruits and vegetables, reversing the trends of the past thirty years of marketing and sourcing, is also a puzzle. What will this mean for small farmers? What is local? What about social justice? None of the proposals in the plan addressed the continued exploitation and suffering of marginalized farm worker communities or the survival of small family farmers. Moreover, no matter how serious and honest Walmart may be in pursuit of this initiative, the sort of change required will have to occur in other organizations that shape, constrain, and control the agrifood system. First and foremost is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which must expand its commitment to shifting from global to local food systems. This would require radical restructuring of the subsidy, research, rural development, resource conservation, credit market, and other facilities in its purview that will be reauthorized in the 2012 Farm Bill.

Yet even this is not the end of the story. Food and nutrition are important, but eating and dietary practices are constrained and shaped by cultural practice and social class position. We need, in short, a paradigm shift — one that recognizes that having access to fresh fruits and vegetables will not mean much if no one is around to prepare, serve, and share the food. We may do well to recall that so-called ‘convenience’, ‘processed’, and ‘fast’ foods were developed because capitalism intensified and expanded the labor time it demands from workers and consumers. ‘Power’ lunches are not a proletarian perk. Like a black hole, capital bends and warps the gravity of our living time, converting as much of it into working time that produces profit. Capital seeks to trap all our time inside the singularity of work time. Escaping that singularity must be a principle of a well-grounded movement for food sovereignty.

There are many reasons to remain constructively engaged yet skeptical of these efforts. Walmart’s plan in the long term must eliminate processed foods altogether and it must downsize individual store footprints. My strongest objection, frankly, is that the last thing the democratic and grassroots food sovereignty movement needs is for Walmart to become the centralized Local Food Commissariat. Local sourcing of food is a good principle, but it matters who controls the process. It also matters how the process is organized, namely whether it is top-down or bottom-up. Increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables in food deserts and low-income communities is also a good principle, but many of these are working-poor families in which parents have to work two or three jobs just to avoid homelessness.

Lacking living-wage jobs and affordable transit options, when are working poor parents to find time and resources to shop for fresh ingredients when they still can’t afford to prepare wholesome meals for their families on a daily basis? Too many of these are single-parent families, mostly headed by women in such circumstances with multiple jobs and marginal earnings. The demands of the local food movement are insufficient as the basis for any sort of deeply transforming and wider reorganization of the nation’s political economy of food and agriculture. We need to be asking ourselves: How do we create an economy where people do not live to work but work to live? In other words, how do we create an economy where people have the option to work less and play, pray, learn, cook, and share the table to eat together more?

Living-wage and 35-hour work week laws may help to resolve this problem by making it possible for people to work at single well-paid jobs instead of wasting their lives trapped in 60+ hours a week spread over three menial part-time and low-paying jobs that still keep families at bare subsistence. If people can earn a just, living wage, this may reduce the length of the work day and week, creating more free time and opportunities for people, including those families trapped in food deserts, to enjoy local shopping, cooking, and conviviality. Is not freedom from work the necessary precondition for people to enjoy sharing wholesome food at the dinner table with their loved ones and friends?

The path away from food deserts must also run along the road toward economic justice and workplace democracy. The goal of food sovereignty is ultimately not possible without these other values. Walmart’s plans to moderately improve their food quality and become the Local Food Commissariat may yield some benefits, but they do not appear poised to achieve genuine food sovereignty.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His influential books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (University of Arizona Press, 2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (University of Arizona Press, 1998).