Wal-Mart Goes Local ... So?

In America, convenience is king. We like hot, fast injections of food and quick all-you-can-accomplish trips, where beauty products, car parts, clothes and groceries are purchased in the same place: a place like Wal-Mart. America is a country founded on the belief that every individual is entitled to whatever products he or she wants, whenever he or she wants them. Consumer satisfaction and free will are inextricably linked under the ideology of the American Dream.

Food is one of the most emblematic of all consumer staples, and Americans have gotten used to getting it cheap and easy. A recent study by the American Farm Bureau Federation showed that Americans spend less money today on food than we ever have. (Though with rising incidence of obesity, it's clear we're not eating less, but instead that food has gotten cheaper and unhealthier.) Fast food chains were the dream of entrepreneurs in the 1940s and 50s: McDonald's signs today boast billions of burgers sold. At the grocery store, high-tech refrigeration promises waxy apples and white iceberg lettuce year round.

The abundance of fast or outsourced food has made local produce, and the farmers and subtle economies that sustain it, an after-thought for many. Worse, local food is often perceived of as a privilege for the rich and trendy who've alighted on the "green" bandwagon wearing pinstripes, pearls and Converse. Eating food from farmer's markets is not something most Americans can do either conveniently or cheaply. Small farmers charge more for one heirloom tomato than Stop & Shop does for a pound of Romas. Plus, farmer's markets are usually only open for a small window of time once a week. Nice food if you can get it, but definitely not part of the economical and easy "one stop shopping" process.

Fortunately, American consumerism has come full circle and things are changing: local might become ubiquitous and affordable again. Imagine regional produce in households from Compton to the Hamptons -- local lemons in SoCal and littlenecks plucked and eaten on Long Island. With gas prices hovering at about $4 a gallon, it's becoming apparent that local food could be cheaper than out-sourced goods: if you had a venue that could sell enough of it.

Though I'm no financial whiz kid, I do know that many market experts believe in supply and demand as a means of regulating society and politics as well as the economy. Theorists like Milton Friedman had great faith that the system of supply and demand could reflect and cater to the needs of a society in both human and financial ways.

Wal-Mart, the quintessence of American discounts and convenience -- and one of the most financially successful companies in history -- has just demonstrated this concept by announcing an incentive to buy produce from local growers so that it might save on shipping costs. This economically viable idea is also environmentally and socially sustainable: proof of Friedman's free market idealism. It is no longer fiscally feasible for Wal-Mart to get its produce from 1,500 miles away. Instead, the store will procure its peaches from 18 U.S. states this summer, in lieu of relying on just two industrial sized peach farms to supply its chains nationwide. The company also plans to work with state agriculture departments to support the growth of new or native crops to be sold in states across the country. This means encouraging small-scale local farmers back to the land.

Providing farmers with means and incentive is essential in reigniting small food economies. More importantly, Wal-Mart is giving local farmers an audience again: by bringing this food into the public eye and into a space where the public shops, its stores will make local produce visible, accessible and affordable.

Not everyone is aware of the multifaceted value of local eating. Not everyone has time to go to his or her regional farmer's market before dinner. Even for those who do, it's not always convenient or economical--two major principals of our great country's dream. But, when local food does become widely available and subsidized by a company that reflects consumer needs and wants, we see the free market at its best: proof that small farmers and large-scale companies can coexist in the pursuit of life, liberty and everyday low food prices.

Happy Independence Day American eaters!