Walmart's Death Grip on Groceries Is Making Life Worse for Millions of People (Hard Times USA)
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This article was published in partnership with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
When Michelle Obama visited a Walmart in Springfield, Missouri, a few weeks ago to praise the company's efforts to sell healthier food, she did not say why she chose a store in Springfield of all cities. But, in ways that Obama surely did not intend, it was a fitting choice. This Midwestern city provides a chilling look at where Walmart wants to take our food system.
Springfield is one of nearly 40 metro areas where Walmart now captures about half or more of consumer spending on groceries, according to Metro Market Studies. Springfield area residents spend just over $1 billion on groceries each year, and one of every two of those dollars flows into a Walmart cash register. The chain has 20 stores in the area and shows no signs of slowing its growth. Its latest proposal, a store just south of the city's downtown, has provoked widespread protest. Opponents say Walmart already has an overbearing presence in the region and argue that this new store would undermine nearby grocery stores, including a 63-year-old family-owned business which still provides delivery for its elderly customers. A few days before the First Lady's visit, the City Council voted 5-4 to approve what will be Walmart's 21st store in the community.
As Springfield goes, so goes the rest of the country, if Walmart has its way. Nationally, the retailer's share of the grocery market now stands at 25 percent. That's up from 4 percent just 16 years ago. Walmart's tightening grip on the food system is unprecedented in U.S. history. Even A&P — often referred to as the Walmart of its day — accounted for only about 12 percent of grocery sales at its height in the 1940s. Its market share was kept in check in part by the federal government, which won an antitrust case against A&P in 1946. The contrast to today's casual acceptance of Walmart's market power could not be more stark.
Having gained more say over our food supply than Monsanto, Kraft, or Tyson, Walmart has been working overtime to present itself as a benevolent king. It has upped its donations to food pantries, reduced sodium and sugars in some of its store-brand products, and recast its relentless expansion as a solution to "food deserts." In 2011, it pledged to build 275-300 stores "in or near" low-income communities lacking grocery stores. The Springfield store Obama visited is one of 86 such stores Walmart has since opened. Situated half a mile from the southwestern corner of a census tract identified as underserved by the USDA, the store qualifies as "near" a food desert. Other grocery stores are likewise perched on the edge of this tract. Although Walmart has made food deserts the vanguard of its PR strategy in urban areas, most of the stores the chain has built or proposed in cities like Chicago and Washington D.C. are in fact just blocks from established supermarkets, many unionized or locally owned. As it pushes into cities, Walmart's primary aim is not to fill gaps but to grab market share.
The real effect of Walmart's takeover of our food system has been to intensify the rural and urban poverty that drives unhealthy food choices. Poverty has a strong negative effect on diet, regardless of whether there is a grocery store in the neighborhood or not, a major 15-year study published in 2011 in the Archives of Internal Medicine found. Access to fresh food cannot change the bottom-line reality that cheap, calorie-dense processed foods and fast food are financially logical choices for far too many American households. And their numbers are growing right alongside Walmart. Like Midas in reverse, Walmart extracts wealth and pushes down incomes in every community it touches, from the rural areas that produce food for its shelves to the neighborhoods that host its stores.