I read The Atlantic story I posted about yesterday. Based on Cory Kummers words, I’d say he’s giving Walmart a C+/B- for its grocery aisles. I fault him for focusing so narrowly and not asking how Walmart helped to get us where we are today.
From The Atlantic:
In the grocery section of the Raynham supercenter, 45 minutes south of Boston, I had trouble believing I was in a Walmart. The very reasonable-looking produce, most of it loose and nicely organized, was in black plastic bins (as in British supermarkets, where the look is common; the idea is to make the colors pop). The first thing I saw, McIntosh apples, came from the same local orchard whose apples I’d just seen in the same bags at Whole Foods. The bunched beets were from Muranaka Farm, whose beets I often buy at other markets—but these looked much fresher. The service people I could find (it wasn’t hard) were unfailingly enthusiastic, though I did wonder whether they got let out at night.
During a few days of tasting, the results were mixed. Those beets handily beat (sorry) ones I’d just bought at Whole Foods, and compared nicely with beets I’d recently bought at the farmers’ market. But packaged carrots and celery, both organic, were flavorless. Organic bananas and “tree ripened” California peaches, already out of season, were better than the ones in most supermarkets, and most of the Walmart food was cheaper—though when I went to my usual Whole Foods to compare prices for local produce, they were surprisingly similar (dry goods and dairy products were considerably less expensive at Walmart).
Walmart holding its own against Whole Foods? This called for a blind tasting.
One concern I have is that Kummer is comparing a big-bog retailer to a big-box retailer. Sure, in a national magazine readers are going to relate to stores with names they recognize, but that’s a poor comparison. I would have been much happier if he’d compared Walmart to a locally owned grocer or food co-op and considered the foods he might buy there.
To do his blind tasting, Kummer shopped for identical (or when the exact item was not available) at least similar items at a Whole Foods and a Walmart in Texas. The results, like his shopping experience, were mixed.
The first course, bowls of almonds and pieces of fried goat cheese with red-onion jam and honey, was a clear win for Walmart. The Walmart almonds were described as “aromatic,” “mellow,” “pure,” and “yummy,” the Whole Foods almonds as “raw,” though also more “natural”; they were in fact fresher, though duller in flavor. (Like the best of the food I saw at the Austin Walmart, the packaging for the almonds had a homegrown Mexican look.) The second course, mixed spring greens in a sherry vinaigrette, was another Walmart win: only a few tasters preferred the Whole Foods greens, calling them fresher and heartier-flavored. And only one noticed the little brown age spots on a few Walmart leaves, but she was a ringer—Carol Ann Sayle, a local farmer famous for her greens.
So far Walmart was ahead. But then came the chicken, served with a poached egg on a bed of spinach and golden raisins. A woman whose taste I already thought uncanny—she works as an aromatherapist—compared the broth-infused meat to something out of a hospital cafeteria: “It’s like they injected it with something to make it taste like fast food.” I thought it was salty, damp, and dismal. The spinach, though, was another story: even the most ardent brothy-breast haters thought the Walmart spinach was fresher.
Dessert was the most puzzling. I had thought that Walmart’s locally sourced milk and exotic-looking vanilla would be the gold standard, but the Whole Foods house brands slaughtered them (“Kicks A’s ass,” one taster wrote). People couldn’t find enough words to diss the Walmart panna cotta (“artificial, thin”) and praise the Whole Foods one (“like a good Christmas”). I wished I’d bought the identical Promised Land milk at Whole Foods, to see if there is in fact a difference in the branded food products that suppliers give Walmart, as there is in the case of other branded products. The pomegranate seeds, sadly, were wan, with barely any flavor, particularly compared with the garnet gems from Whole Foods. But Walmart got points from the chef, and from me, for carrying pomegranates at all.
As I had been in my own kitchen, the tasters were surprised when the results were unblinded at the end of the meal and they learned that in a number of instances they had adamantly preferred Walmart produce. And they weren’t entirely happy.
Kummer spends a great deal of his article discussing Walmart’s local purchases and its participation in the United States Department of Agriculture’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program.
I’m fortunate here in Cleveland to have access to three close-by farmer’s markets, where, in the case of The West Side Market and the Shaker Square Farmer’s Market, I can often talk directly to the farmers about what they are offering for sale on any given Saturday.
That’s not an opportunity you’re likely to get at a Walmart or a Whole Foods.
Is Walmart getting better? Perhaps. Is Walmart getting food right? I don’t think so.