Walmart's Big Plan To Feed The Food Deserts Of The U.S.

Teaming up with Michelle Obama, the discount giant is moving into neighborhoods where there are no grocery stores. Altruism or savvy business move? A little of both.

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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.

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

Read More: How Walmart Pushed Its Suppliers To Do Better

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6 Comments

  • Suzanne Pinckney

    Distribution is the key and we know WalMart dominates on that front.  However, if you are hoping for a more local option with the ability to pay the fair wage and build community, check out StockBox Grocers piloting in Seattle, WA soon: http://stockboxgrocers.com/  More innovative, customizable, and local options are really viable!

  • Gabriella Rackoff

    I have to agree with Bonnie. Sure, a farmers market is better. But why are people so insistent that Walmart is evil incarnate? If people (especially disadvantaged children) are going to be eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, how can that be a bad thing?  

  • roberta karlene hastings

    another way for WallMart to get a corner on the distribution of food. They will probably have farmers sign a contract cutting them out of the local farmers market. WallMark is in it for the greed. People in the so called food deserts can start comunity gardens on every free patch of land 

  • Bonnie Cavanaugh

    If WalMart is selling local, sustainable produce it's a first step in the right direction. With any luck (!) this will promote a surge in competition via in-city agricultural programs.

  • Shane Meche

    One more great reason not to shop at Walmart! Food Desert? is that the new politically correct term for slum?

  • bob watson

    Food desert? You think so? You should check where they're putting this in Chicago and then try to explain how it's a "food desert".