Recent Efforts Have Some Reconsidering Wal-Mart

Walmart Produce i i

Corby Kummer says the Wal-Mart produce layout — fruits and vegetables in black bins — is a more European style of display. Eli Meir Kaplan/Wonderful Machine hide caption

itoggle caption Eli Meir Kaplan/Wonderful Machine
Walmart Produce

Corby Kummer says the Wal-Mart produce layout — fruits and vegetables in black bins — is a more European style of display.

Eli Meir Kaplan/Wonderful Machine

Wal-Mart often inspires fervent opinions. Critics question its labor practices, and effect on local businesses. Proponents praise its low, low prices and the availability of affordable food and other staples.

Recent studies suggest it might be time for critics to look at Wal-Mart in a more positive light. These days, the world's largest retailer works with local farmers to supply cheaper, more affordable food. And its sheer size allows it to drive positive changes in other areas, from energy to transportation.

Guests:

Corby Kummer, senior editor for The Atlantic. His article, "The Great Grocery Smackdown: Will Wal-Mart, Not Whole Foods, Save The Small Farm And Make America Healthy?" appears in the March 2010 issue of the magazine.

Betsy Schiffman, writer at AOL's DailyFinance.com, covering financial markets and technology. Her piece, "Boycotting Wal-Mart? Good Luck With That" addresses the effectiveness of calls for boycotts against the company.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan, in Washington.

Wal-Mart: some love it, some hate it. Over the years, the world's largest retailer has been accused of everything from unfair labor practices to undercutting American manufacturers, and the criticism seems unlikely to stop.

A recent study by the University of Illinois Chicago suggests that a new Wal-Mart on the west side of that city cost, net, 300 local jobs. But a story in The Atlantic Magazine quotes one activist as saying it's getting harder and harder to hate Wal-Mart.

Senior editor Corby Kummer wrote that he'd never think of shopping for food at Wal-Mart, and when he learned that Wal-Mart now competes with high-end stores like Whole Foods to offer fresh, organic, locally grown foods, he decided to stage a taste test.

Well, is it time to reconsider Wal-Mart? Shoppers, farmers, has your relationship with the retail giant changed? Tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Web site, too. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, one-time UConn star and now coach at rival Hartford Jen Rizzotti joins us to talk about the Husky juggernaut.

But first, Corby Kummer joins us from member station WGBH in Boston. He's a senior editor for The Atlantic, where his article, "The Great Grocery Smackdown: Will Wal-Mart, Not Whole Foods, Save the Small Farm and Make America Healthy?" ran in the March issue. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. CORBY KUMMER (Senior Editor, The Atlantic Magazine; Author): Nice to be here.

CONAN: And what was your reaction when you pushed your cart into the fresh food sections at Wal-Mart?

Mr. KUMMER: Well, I mean, it wasn't exactly like coming into Oz, but it was very surprising. I'd been told that Wal-Mart was going after high-ish-end supermarkets, and I'd better get myself to one of their so-called supercenters and have a look at the fruit and vegetables.

So I did. It wasn't so easy in Boston because the closest stores in Boston are the oddly named neighborhood stores, which, of course, you know, are vast and look nothing like neighborhood stores that we think of. But I found myself in this supercenter, and I found very good-looking produce, and, in fact, one of those pick-your-own apple bags - you know, they're cute and white and have pictures of apples and handles on them - from exactly the same Massachusetts farm that I had seen at Whole Foods the day before. So, I decided I'm going to try doing a regular marketing here.

CONAN: And the discovery, it was interesting. You staged a bit of a contest. You bought similar or exactly the same kinds of foods at Whole Foods and at Wal-Mart and delivered them to a restaurant and told the chef to prepare everything as simply as possible and brought in a jury of your peers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KUMMER: Well, you know, I was lucky because I was going to Austin, Texas, a city I love - which is, of course, the home of Whole Foods - and I got in touch with a friend who writes for The Atlantic Food Channel, our food site, which I edit. And he's a contrarian, and he said, okay. I've got friends that at a sustainably minded restaurant in Austin - because Austin's full of them. It was called FINO, and they helped design a menu at my request that was as simple as possible, so that we could have a fair fight.

And I went armed with the exact shopping list to get the same set of ingredients at Whole Foods and Wal-Mart and bring them into the restaurant kitchen, where I can assure you the cooks were very surprised to see a parade of Wal-Mart bags coming into their walk-in.

CONAN: And, indeed, some of the results were a little surprising, because it was a blind taste test. People got the same plates and didn't know whether A or B was Wal-Mart or Whole Foods.

Mr. KUMMER: They only knew they came from two different purveyors and that they were the same thing, and that they had to score them on sheets. They were local food bloggers and food tasters and restaurant critics and one farmer who turned out to be another contributor to the Food Channel, who turned out to be the ringer. She knew the difference. But most people found themselves routinely preferring the vegetables and fruit from Wal-Mart, and they weren't happy when it was un-blinded.

CONAN: And interestingly, this is the result of a policy that is less trumpeted than other aspects of Wal-Mart's style of business, and that is that they are going more and more for, well, local produce.

Mr. KUMMER: Well, they are, and that's the reason I wrote the article, even though the produce that I bought in Austin wasn't particularly local. The fact that they've launched this initiative very quietly, because it's still in the test phases - but, of course, a test phase for Wal-Mart has huge implications and huge immediate results, which is that they're trying to revive agriculture in areas for staple crops, not fancy heirlooms like we think of with farmers markets, staple crops: onions, potatoes, lettuce, herbs, things that are - have really only been available from California and Florida and Texas, big-ag states.

And they're saying if you can deliver them to one of our distribution centers that's within a day's drive, we will buy from you, not California and Florida, and the money that we save on the three to five days of truck transport, we'll pay you a slight premium, as long as we can offer it at Wal-Mart at the same price we would be for produce from the big-ag states. That's their initiative.

CONAN: And again, when you talk about a retailer the size of Wal-Mart, this is huge.

Mr. KUMMER: It is huge because, in a state like mine - I just talked about apples in Massachusetts, once an extremely important crop commercially, lost out entirely to Washington State. And now - and to an extent, New York State. And now both of those states are losing out to China, which decided 10 to 15 years ago to plant enormous crops of apples.

So the - all of this centralization doesn't pay off for farming areas, and Wal-Mart recognized this and recognized that a lot of university networks and nonprofits are trying to help farmers get access to enormous markets like Wal-Mart by helping smooth the distribution network, which is always the big sticking point in buying local produce for big supermarket chains.

So they decided: Let's capitalize on this government investment, some of it from smoking settlement money in tobacco-growing states, and see what we can do to try to get farms to raise these staple crops they long ago had to give up.

CONAN: And it's interesting. Wal-Mart does not do this from altruism. Wal-Mart does it because - well, one of the differences between the Whole Foods bags of groceries and the ones from Wal-Mart was it was a little cheaper from Wal-Mart.

Mr. KUMMER: You know, it was a little cheaper. I have to credit Whole Foods, because when I went straight back to the one in Boston two days after I did my surprising marketing run at a Wal-Mart supercenter near Boston, I found that they were very competitive in produce prices.

So I think that after the recession, Whole Foods has become much more price sensitive, especially produce. So it's not that there's necessarily a premium, but Wal-Mart will essentially never be undersold. So it's always going to be cheaper than what you'll find elsewhere.

CONAN: But how do they deal with the relatively short growing season in places like Massachusetts?

Mr. KUMMER: Well, what they'll do is they'll only buy from them in growing season, and those places, those farms, have to find their own way of getting that produce. They're not supplying trucks, and they're not giving them any capital. They're saying if you are able to deliver us this amount of product, we'll sell it, and we'll buy it from you.

And, you know, as activists, I have to jump ahead, because there - everyone's suspicious of Wal-Mart. I'm suspicious of Wal-Mart. And the proof of their sincerity is going to be whether they renew these contracts year after year, because very right-minded - I'm not going to name supermarket chains that make a big deal of buying local produce - will buy it for one year from a farm, and the farm gets all excited, invests in a lot more acreage, and then the next year, the buyer has disappeared because there's a lot of staff turnover. There's no loyalty to this farmer, and this farmer is stuck with a lot of crop that she or he can't sell. The majority of farmers, at least in Massachusetts, are women.

So the question is whether Wal-Mart is going to, you know, put its money where its mouth is - which I think it will, because it's hardly publicized this at all - and buy year after year from the farmers who do increase their acreage.

CONAN: Corby Kummer is our quest. He's a senior editor for The Atlantic and editor of The Atlantic Food Channel. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Is it time to reconsider Wal-Mart? Alan(ph) is on the line, calling from Minneapolis.

ALAN (Caller): Hi, there. You know, I think Wal-Mart's a great thing because it could get that distribution out to vast numbers of people, but, you know, they're in it for a profit. I mean, Wal-Mart just very recently has had kind of bad negative press, and if, you know, if we look at what they've done in the past, they've allowed a company to come in, and then they give them, you know, a good deal, and then they get that distribution wide to the point where they've got to either reinvest or buy new equipment and all these things, and then Wal-Mart will come back and renegotiate and price them down so that they, you know, they have no choice at that point because they've already made this investment.

CONAN: Do you speak of personal experience, Alan?

ALAN: Absolutely. The Wal-Mart here in the Minnesota area, you know, they will work with local companies, but, you know, I was on the verge of doing that, and I was advised by my associate don't do it. You know, you'll get the quarters, but you have to get such big numbers, and then the renegotiation, just a small percentage, all of a sudden there goes your profit. And then you're kind of like a slave for Wal-Mart, but you don't - you know, you don't want to give it because you are making the big - you know, you're selling more.

CONAN: Well, that's the...

ALAN: Anyways, I don't want to see that happen with organic farmers because, you know, an organic farmer is a good thing. We don't want - it's not like T-shirts, like I do. I mean, it's a valuable thing.

CONAN: All right, Alan. Thanks very much.

Mr. KUMMER: First of all, let me - that's an excellent point, and Wal-Mart is notorious for driving down prices year after year. I have to say, kind of in its defense - although it's in no one's defense - that large chains, including Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, because these accusations have been made so often, are notorious for doing the same thing: offering an enormous market, but then year after year, driving down a supplier's profit margins to the extent that they're completely stuck, just as you describe.

One point about organic, though: The emphasis here is not necessarily on organic. It's on just crops grown within a day's drive of their distribution centers on farms that couldn't profitably grow staple produce before. It's not necessarily on organic.

You know, organic is a separate thing and an entirely separate issue, and often much more expensive for a farmer to grow. But this is just bringing back local staple crops where they've been lost, not necessarily organic.

CONAN: We're talking about Wal-Mart and a food fight that The Atlantic staged with Whole Foods. And is it time to reconsider Wal-Mart? Shoppers, farmers, has your relationship with the giant retailer changed? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

Wal-Mart is the world's largest retailer. Last year, they had more than $400 billion in revenue, a significant amount of that in food sales. The megastore is now pushing organic and local produce, and for some, their fresh approach has been surprising. We're talking with Corby Kummer, the senior editor at The Atlantic magazine - or a senior article. His article, "The Great Grocery Smackdown: Will Wal-Mart, Not Whole Foods, Save The Small Farm And Make America Healthy?" runs in this month's issue. We've posted a link to it at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We want to hear from you. Is it time to reconsider Wal-Mart? Shoppers, farmers, has your relationship with the retail giant changed? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

I want to go quickly to a couple of emails, or an email and a tweet, this email from Gina(ph): When Super-Wal-Mart opened in our Superior, Wisconsin, I boycotted since it was big business and was squeezing out little, area businesses.

I went to our local supermarket and loaded up my cart to feed my family of six. When I started mentally adding the total in my cart, I was already at twice my budget with less than half my shopping done. That was it. I left my cart and headed to Wal-Mart to do my shopping. I had to consider that I was taking my money from my family and could not continue to do so. We now do all my shopping at Wal-Mart, and though my conscience takes a beating, my wallet does not.

And interestingly, I think you did a calculation, Corby Kummer, that by some calculations, Wal-Mart's discounts on food are more important than some government programs.

Mr. KUMMER: Right, and you know, with all these calculations, who's paying for it where? Is it agriculture subsidies? Is it some other government fund that we don't know about from our taxes that's actually subsidizing this food? Is it what we should be eating? There are all these questions that come into play, but what a what a choice your correspondent just mentioned.

I have been able to kind of hold my head up among activists by saying: I wrote this piece because it is about getting fresh fruits and vegetables available to the people who most need them in food deserts.

We're all used to thinking of very densely packed urban areas as being food deserts, with only closely guarded, dangerous convenience stores that have a couple of old bananas and wilted carrots. But in fact, food deserts are a very big issue in rural areas.

But she actually has the choice, and she had to choose Wal-Mart for her budget. So the question is, you know, who's subsidizing it? Are they taking it out in the lower wages they pay their own laborers, the fact that they don't supply health insurance? There are all these things we always have to think about when we're advocating shopping at Wal-Mart.

But she has a stark choice. She needs to feed her family, and this is allowing her to do it, and it's giving them fresh food.

CONAN: And they do offer health insurance, at least to some employees. That's another that gets us to this tweet from Brian72975(ph). Wal-Mart's enviro-leadership is encouraging, he writes, but they're on the opposite end of the spectrum on labor. Can't support them until the Employee Free Choice Act is law.

Well, joining us to talk about that and some other issues regarding Wal-Mart is Betsy Schiffman. She's reported on many aspects of Wal-Mart's business. She's a writer at DailyFinance.com, where she covers financial markets and technology, and nice to have you with us here in Studio 3A.

Ms. BETSY SCHIFFMAN (Writer, DailyFinance.com; Author, "Boycotting Walmart? Good Luck With That"): Thanks very much. It's good to be here.

CONAN: And the union issue, that has been, well, a b�te noire for a lot of people who oppose Wal-Mart, and the company staunchly fights this wherever it can.

Ms. SCHIFFMAN: Yeah, I mean, a lot of people object to Wal-Mart, but just based on labor practices. But it's an expensive proposition to boycott Wal-Mart just because of its labor practices, because it is cutthroat prices. You're not going to find cheaper goods anywhere else.

CONAN: And have perceptions of Wal-Mart changed?

Ms. SCHIFFMAN: I think they have. I mean, personally, I sort of noticed a change in tone when Wal-Mart announced that it was going to go into health care, it was going to open all these low-cost clinics that, you know, would cost...

CONAN: Four-dollar prescriptions.

Ms. SCHIFFMAN: Yes, at the most, it would cost $65. And if, you know, you had a sore throat, or if you wanted to get your cholesterol checked or whatever. All of a sudden, it became people realized that Wal-Mart could be used for the power of good. Its scale and size could be used for the power of good, I think.

CONAN: There was we recently did a series on the documentary films nominated for the Oscar this year. "Food, Inc." was among them, and it included an examination of some of Wal-Mart's purchasing power and purchasing techniques in terms of organics and locals, as it looked at it.

Ms. SCHIFFMAN: Yeah, interestingly, I mean, I have talked to a few suppliers who have worked with both Wal-Mart and Whole Foods, and anecdotally, I've heard that Whole Foods is actually far more difficult to work with - that one of their little tricks is that they'll go with small, independent suppliers that no one's heard of so that you can't compare prices at, say, Safeway or Kroger, whatever. I mean, so Whole Foods is not a saint.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on...

Mr. KUMMER: I have to say can I just...?

CONAN: Corby Kummer, go ahead.

Mr. KUMMER: I'm awfully glad you've brought that up, because I've been hearing those anecdotes for years. I've only tracked them with the actual farmers that were bought from, and those stories are widespread, along with some good stories from long-time suppliers and local farmers.

But because of that, I felt some cover to do a positive story and really investigate it. And I have to say thank you for mentioning "Food, Inc." because the makers the director of "Food, Inc.," Robbie Kenner, was one of the first people who told me, you know, you don't think you have to take Wal-Mart seriously. You do.

CONAN: Joining us on the line from Denver, is Eric(ph).

ERIC (Caller): Hi there.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ERIC: I'm really excited to talk about this. Corby, I thought your article was really very, very interesting. I put it out on Facebook, and I run a social media consulting agency.

So I kind of went out there and did a social media, conversational media audit, where I went out and looked at blogs and forums, Twitter, Facebook, and to see what kind of responses people were putting out there about your article and about this whole program in general.

And the results were very, very interesting, because people fell basically into three camps. And the first was, hey, I always loved Wal-Mart. Look, I'm vindicated. The second was, this is very interesting. I may give Wal-Mart a shot because I think this is a good thing. And then the third was, this was all very interesting, but Wal-Mart still sucks because they have bad labor practices.

So it was really fascinating to see that tons and tons of comments for every blog post and a lot of activity on Twitter about it after Corby's article came out.

CONAN: And Corby, what kind of reaction did you get, yeah?

Mr. KUMMER: You know, exactly that same, and gosh, thanks for those metrics. That's very exciting to hear about. The problem is that all three positions, which have been amply represented on a lot of sites, I really respect. I've been fascinated to see it.

They all three coexist, those points of view. You can support all of those points of view, and I think that as a writer, I do. I understand them all.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Eric, and for the research.

ERIC: You bet.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And Betsy Schiffman, let me ask you. There was another story we mentioned at the top of the show, an analysis - and you can dispute an analysis - but that showed the debut of a Wal-Mart on the west side of Chicago call it a net loss of 300 jobs as local businesses went out of...

Ms. SCHIFFMAN: Yeah, you know, I've seen that, and I've heard, you know, similar studies in the past. One thing I wondered about that study is - I think it started in 2006, and it went through November of 2008 - and that was just a really rough period for retailers.

CONAN: Everybody in retail.

Ms. SCHIFFMAN: So, you know, I think they said something like 27 percent of retailers that they were following went out of business as a result of Wal-Mart's opening. But by the same token, who knows how many might have gone out of business anyway? Or I mean, it was a just a really challenging time.

CONAN: Here's an email from Sofia(ph) in North Dakota. My friends and I were just talking about this on Facebook the other day. You wouldn't believe the number of comments the topic got. Wal-Mart is certainly a place you love to hate, but their prices are really unbelievable. Their produce is great. There may be a lot not to love about Wal-Mart, but my pocketbook really appreciates it.

This from Christine(ph) in St. Louis: When Wal-Mart started, it was a positive experience for the small towns they entered, just as it is positive they now carry local, organic producer. Here's the problem: Eventually, Wal-Mart became so powerful it not only drove its competition out of business, it also drove some of its vendors out of business. If the balance of power between Wal-Mart and the local farmers remains fair, this can be positive. But based on past experience, I don't think this is going to be good for farmers in the end because they will pay less and less for the food they buy.

And that again going back, Betsy, to this argument that they once establishing a relationship with a vendor, whether that's a farmer or anybody else, they then drive prices down.

Ms. SCHIFFMAN: Yeah, that's interesting. You know, last week, Wal-Mart said that it's going to drop grocery prices, which, you know, is terrible news for its competitors like Target. And actually, even though consumers will ultimately be paying less for a product, it could mean that the vendors and suppliers are going to be cutting corners to provide, you know, so that they can eke out a profit, as well. So there will be a ripple effect.

CONAN: Let's go next I'm sorry, Corby, go ahead.

Mr. KUMMER: No, that is what we're all in suspense waiting to see how this actually plays out for the farmers who replant staple crops. However, I have to say the use of that land for staple crops rather than for development will be a good thing for agriculture. The only difference in that letter was that the small town actually welcomed Wal-Mart at the beginning. It's usually the opposite experience.

CONAN: Kayla(ph) is on the line from Reno.

KAYLA: Hi, thank you for taking my call.

My relationship and my husband's relationship with Wal-Mart has drastically changed a few years ago when the independent film, "High Price of Low Cost," came out, and my husband and I became solidified in that we were not going to shop at Wal-Mart anymore because we so strongly disagree with their labor practices.

Shortly after that, we found out that our daughter had celiac's(ph) disease and can no longer have, you know, any gluten in her diet. And our local Wal-Mart has begun to offer an incredible price on gluten-free foods. As a result, we have stopped shopping at Whole Foods just because it was taking such a toll on our grocery budget. You know, her - our 4-year-old's diet alone was costing us same amount as my husband's and mine.

And when Wal-Mart started offering their low prices on that, my husband and I -well, we're still torn. We still don't know whether every time we give them a dollar if we're supporting something that we, otherwise, morally wouldn't.

CONAN: And do you know why they have such good prices on gluten-free foods?

KAYLA: No, I'm not sure why. But the exact same product at one grocery store versus the other is literally half the price.

Mr. KUMMER: Can I speculate? When they see that there's a rising market as there certainly is for gluten-free foods, they understand very much that people are buying that at rival stores and they go after it. And it's a very good reason that they've gone in to the local produce movement.

They see that shoppers want it. It's why they went in to organics. It's the consequences of when they start selling this on the rest of the supply chain and the other stores that really matter and that we all watch for.

KAYLA: Right. And as a result, my husband and I, we - every time we walk into Wal-Mart, we just wonder, you know - and I hate to make Wal-Mart sound like an economical enemy, but, you know, we feel like we're giving a dollar to the mob boss. We just don't really want to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAYLA: Yeah. I mean, you guys know where I'm getting at. And, again, I'm so very thankful that Wal-Mart has supplied that to our family. But at the same time, we're still very torn on whether it's a good decision for our community.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

And, Betsy Schiffman, is Wal-Mart aware of that kind of moral ambivalence among a significant number of its clientele?

Ms. SCHIFFMAN: I think it is very sensitive to that. I mean, I can't imagine a month goes by where someone isn't declaring that they're going to boycott Wal-Mart or some special interest group declaring that they're going to boycott Wal-Mart. And the fact is that they have so much financial power, a boycott really isn't going to hurt them. But it is - they do want to make nice with local communities. They don't want to have a hostile relationship.

CONAN: We're talking about Wal-Mart. Is it time to reconsider? Our guests, Corby Kummer, who's a senior editor at The Atlantic, and Betsy Schiffman, a writer at AOL's dailyfinance.com, covering the financial markets and the technology. Her work has also appeared in many other publications.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go to Jim(ph). Jim calling us from Sacramento.

JIM (Caller): Yes, good morning.

CONAN: Good afternoon here.

JIM: Good afternoon. I just - my experience - I was a Wal-Mart hater. I still don't buy a lot of clothing and things like that. But I just recently spent three months in very northern Idaho, 50 miles from Canada, in an area - Pend Oreille lake area. And I did, exclusively for three months, all my shopping at Wal-Mart, all my grocery shopping. I was delighted. There's other - there was other stores in that area available. Prices are outrageous.

I'm a Trader Joe's, Whole Foods occasionally guy, but the prices just knock me out. I live on social security. And I've bent towards loving Wal-Mart. I didn't used to, but it's a matter of survival. I have some uppity friends that I'm almost embarrassed to tell them that I shop there because they think - they live on the coast, in the Napa, California types and they're all Whole Foods junkies. But I'm sorry, I can't live that way.

And I'm glad to see Wal-Mart doing what it's doing. It's about taking care of the people and letting them have more options.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JIM: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's go next down to - this is Bonnie(ph). Bonnie with us from Fresno.

BONNIE (Caller): Hi. I am a California native. I left California four years ago when the state was having a problem with the whole idea of supercenters coming in. In fact, Stockton, California, I believe, was one of the first Wal-Mart Supercenters to go in. That was where I was from.

I moved to Dallas four years ago. You cannot shop anywhere else but a Wal-Mart. We all hold up our three little fingers over our chest, you know, yeah, Wal-Mart. It's a joke because we all hate being in there - my friends. It's just the only place to shop.

Now, we're moving back to California. I'm on the road in Fresno, pulling a trailer. I was so excited about coming to California and shopping at places that I used to shop at for local produce and, finally, being able to kick the Wal-Mart habit. And now I heard your station - I'm hearing it for the first time that Wal-Mart's now doing local produce, which I've always supported. But in Texas, there's hardly any produce. Nothing is local.

I'm so excited about coming back to California and being able to shop at places like that. But now, I'm going to have to consider my checkbook again and there's no - now Wal-Mart has given me one more reason not to go somewhere else, to stay with them. And I - I'm encouraged, basically, because I've grown up in California watching every field turn into a development, and it's very sad.

My husband and I have decided not to buy a new home this time around, trying to help that out. But I want to know - that's just my comment in how my relationship with Wal-Mart has changed. Thought it was going to change again, and now it's completely the same.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BONNIE: But I want to know something about NAFTA. I mean, let's talk about avocados from Mexico.

CONAN: Well, that's a subject for another day. We only have a minute and a half left here. So...

BONNIE: But I'm encouraged that this will help combat NAFTA and get our produce back in the states.

CONAN: All right, Bonnie, thanks very much.

Mr. KUMMER: Can I say something?

CONAN: Go ahead.

Mr. KUMMER: I will never be able to live with myself, let alone my uppity friends - as the previous caller said - if I don't urge you to shop at local farmers' markets now that you're back in California. You've had a number of callers who are the ideal test subjects because they didn't have access to produce in other places.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KUMMER: And I really am excited about the idea that local agriculture can return to places that California and Florida priced out of the market. But people who do have access and are able to use food stamps, for example, there are many programs making it easier to use food stamps for local produce, please go to farmers' market.

CONAN: And let's - one quick question to Betsy Schiffman, and that is, are the - what campaigns to keep Wal-Mart out of places like Los Angeles, those are still continuing?

Ms. SCHIFFMAN: Oh, for sure. For sure. As far as I remember, I think Vermont is still successfully the only state that is...

Mr. KUMMER: Wal-Mart free.

Ms. SCHIFFMAN: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. KUMMER: If you want to put it that way.

Ms. SCHIFFMAN: Yeah.

CONAN: All right.

Ms. SCHIFFMAN: Yeah.

CONAN: All right. Well, thank you. Betsy Schiffman joined us here in Studio 3A. She's a writer at AOL's DailyFinance.com. Corby Kummer, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. KUMMER: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: Corby Kummer, a senior editor at The Atlantic, editor of The Atlantic Food Channel. And we've been talking about his article, "The Great Grocery Smackdown: Will Wal-Mart, Not Whole Foods, Save the Small Farm and Make America Healthy?"

Coming up, we're going to be talking with, well, a former point guard at the University of Connecticut, now the coach of a rival just down the road about the juggernaut of Husky basketball. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. TALK OF THE NATION, NPR news.

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