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mban1414lWe have a new Publix in town and so I am now an unwilling target of the Publix-Walmart price wars.  Where I grew up, the Winn Dixie was our neighborhood store. My parents bought a house in the “first tier” suburbs in Baton Rouge and a suburban-type shopping center had sprung up to service the neighborhood when I was about 6 or 7. Before that, our shopping was done at the A&P “over by campus”  but we had no brand loyalty and the convenience of local trumped almost everything else. By the time I was 8, I was able to ride my bike to the store and bring home a half gallon of milk after a mandatory stop at the TG&Y. I don’t recall my mother price shopping much although I do remember when “store brands” became an option and we children had to argue for value over volume when it came to things like Pop-tarts. When we went and visited my mother’s family in the rural town of Pontchatoula, we would go shopping at Bohning’s for a very different experience. In that store, many of the staff knew my mother (even though she had been away for over a decade) and the visit was an important part of the store experience. At least for my mother it was, to be honest I was a little (well, OK, a lot) bored.

For many today, grocery shopping is a very different experience, mostly as a consequence of Walmart. In 40 metro areas in the United States, Walmart accounts for over 50% of the traditional grocery market and nationally it accounts for 25% of sales. This is problematic in two ways. One is that they are forcing out the last vestiges of personalized service such as I had experienced at Bohnings. Much worse, however, is the impact on the food chain

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.

Walmart has made it harder for farmers and food workers to earn a living. Its rapid rise as a grocer triggered a wave of mergers among food companies, which, by combining forces, hoped to become big enough to supply Walmart without getting crushed in the process. Today, food processing is more concentrated than ever. Four meatpackers slaughter 85 percent of the nation’s beef. One dairy company handles 40 percent of our milk, including 70 percent of the milk produced in New England. With fewer buyers, farmers are struggling to get a fair price. Between 1995 and 2009, farmers saw their share of each consumer dollar spent on beef fall from 59 to 42 cents. Their cut of the consumer milk dollar likewise fell from 44 to 36 cents. For pork, it fell from 45 to 25 cents and, for apples, from 29 to 19 cents.

So, I looked critically at the Walmart ad in our local paper and it struck me that the savings of $36 on a $150 basket was a little artificial. Sure, they have great prices at Walmart on Coca-Cola Cherry Vanilla Soda ($1.50 cheaper than Publix).  Also, if I bought 4 different boxes of sugary cereal with the word “clusters” in the title every time I went shopping I would certainly like to save a dollar on every box. Given that 32% of Mobilians suffer from obesity, I hope we are learning to make better selections. For example:

There, saved you an extra $50. Go and spend it on local produce at a farmer’s market (if you need to find one near you, click here)..