In certain parts of the U.S., you can't turn a corner without bumping into a farmer's market or grocery store. But there are plenty of spots in the country where consumers lack these options and are instead forced to shop at junk food-filled convenience stores. Walmart, that bastion of low-priced, imported goods, has a plan to bring fresh food to these so-called food deserts—and probably make a hefty amount of cash in the process.
Walmart announced this week that it will open up to 300 new locations over the next five years in food deserts across the country as part of an initiative spearheaded by Michelle Obama. These locations, along with the 218 stores in food deserts that Walmart has opened over the past four years, will serve 1.3 million people—many of whom have no other option for fresh produce and unprocessed foods other than Walmart. The company is, in other words, virtually guaranteed to be the biggest grocer in these locations (Walmart already makes up 25% of grocery sales nationwide). The competition is almost nonexistent.
"By opening stores where customers need them most, Walmart will help build healthier families and stronger communities. We believe every single person should have access to an abundant selection of fresh fruits and vegetables at an affordable price," said Leslie Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs at Walmart, in a statement."
The food desert plan is part of a larger plan by Walmart to make local, healthy food more accessible to customers. Walmart recently announced plans to double sales of fresh produce sourced from local farms in U.S. stores by the end of 2015. The company also expects to invest over $1 billion in its global fresh food supply chain over the next five years.
Would small, locally owned groceries be better for food deserts than Walmart? Possibly—they help foster community and probably pay a bit more than Walmart's notoriously low wages. But here's the thing: These mom-and-pop groceries aren't showing up fast enough in food deserts, if at all. In the meantime, obesity rates are steadily climbing and Walmart knows that there are a lot of underserved markets for its produce and other cheap goods. At least the superstore is providing healthy options for people who, in many cases, wouldn't have access to them otherwise.