The Scoop

Landship Foods is inspired by the conviction that growing and eating healthy food is one of the most important things we can do for both ourselves and the broader communities of which we are a part. The name comes from the language of pre-industrial Europe. Before the enclosure movement and the associated rise in notions of private property swept England, the suffix “-ship” (as in "relationship," or "friendship") referred to an object or an abstraction with collective duties and mutual rights. Thus, the term “landship” suggests that land was an entity through which humans were joined to each other by a set of rights and responsibilities. I advocate for a revival of this awareness.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Wal-Mart, Local Food, and the Politics of Consumption

A recent article in The Atlantic suggests that Wal-Mart might help "save the small farm and make America healthy". That was no typo: Wal-Mart. The author, Corby Kummer, points to the corporation's "Heritage Agriculture" program which aims to stock supercenter shelves with produce from "local" farms. He also quotes some higher-up blue-smocks as saying they want to "revive local economies and communities that lost out when agriculture became centralized". (Insert sardonic guffaw here)
Kummer compares Wal-Mart to Whole Foods throughout the article, which culminates in the "grocery smackdown" - a blind taste-test between the two at an upscale Austin, TX restaurant. The results: Wal-Mart fares at least as good, if not better, in taste and freshness. Kummer closes with a lament that most people can't buy direct from the farmer or grow their own and seems to believe that Wal-Mart is the next best option.
I am interested to see how this all plays out, and am open to the idea that Wal-Mart's market power could be wielded for good. Though admittedly skeptical of their conversion, I am not writing this post with the intent of adding my name to the long list of "Wal-Mart haters". Nor am I writing to belabor the inadequacy of measuring local food merely on scales of taste and freshness - hopefully most readers know that local agriculture runs much deeper than the palette. Rather, I want to point out that Kummer's line of reasoning reflects the limits of several strands of green politics, those based on a politics of consumption.
By this I mean a political agenda that is largely rooted in buying: buy local, buy American, buy fair trade, etc... I believe, of course, that recognizing and utilizing our power as consumers is important; but to think that buying is the most effective way to achieve change is at best short-sighted, and at worst lazy. Kummer's analysis is firmly tethered to a politics of consumption, as evident in the central question of his article: Will Wal-Mart or Whole Foods lead us to a more healthy, agrarian America? This strikes me as a ridiculously limited, indeed, a self-defeating question. Why start by ceding leadership to a business? Democratically describing a better future is difficult (Kummer suggests this future is one where more families can source direct from farmers or grow their own), but after we do so the best way to get there is through community action and legislative reform - not by plodding through the check-out lines of Wal-Mart or Whole Foods.

1 comment:

LA Reed said...

[By the way, nice to see your revival in blogdom. I recently revamped my little blog after a long hiatus.]

Similar thoughts struck me when I watched Food, Inc. for the first time recently. I've heard critiques of the film, but I will say that its tone is more prescriptive than most docs, along the lines you write of here. Even the "instructions" at the end of the movie make a call for Americans to enact legislative change and not just to change where and how they shop. Although there was some of that, too. Wal-Mart pops up in a segment on organic yogurt in big-box stores.

But I digress. (As I'm so prone to do.) I'm replying to throw you some props. I agree--I think American consumers have gotten hung up on the "power" of their dollar because they've been sold this buy-and-save-the-world story so many times. I see it even in Athens. Many who can afford to shop at Earthfare (always with their linen totes!), for example, take pride in purchasing all organics, and some local. Which is great, of course, at a base level. But I think they conceptualize themselves as food super-heroes for it.

I don't have much room to talk, though. I'm still learning. Thanks for the post!