RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Wal-Mart created a stir a couple of years ago when it announced it was moving into the organic food market. Now the nation's top grocery seller is promoting its locally grown produce. The company touts the community benefits, but it's also a way for Wal-Mart to cut down on fuel costs. Reporter Jenny O'Mara from member station KXJZ in Sacramento has more.
JENNY O'MARA: Some things you can expect to see at any Wal-Mart you go to.
Unidentified Woman: OK. Thank you for shopping Wal-Mart. You have a nice day.
O'MARA: But at this West Sacramento Super Center there's something different. The produce area is covered with bright green and white signs highlighting products that are California grown.
Wal-Mart says partnerships with local farmers have grown 50 percent over the past two years - and not just in California, but in Wal-Mart stores across the country. This year, it plans to buy about $400 million of locally grown produce.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Tiffany Moffatt says the primary benefit to the company is savings on fuel costs to the tune of millions of dollars a year. Local partnerships have become the company's latest PR mantra.
Ms. TIFFANY MOFFATT (Spokeswoman, Wal-Mart): It's estimated that in the United States, produce travels an average of 1,500 miles from farms to homes of consumers. So it just provides us an opportunity to make products closer to home and buy local.
O'MARA: But the retailer's definition of what constitutes locally grown doesn't match the one promoted by many in the so-called local food movement. You'll find many of them at local farmers markets.
This is a scene usually associated with that local food movement, organic produce, small farmers, some who truck their products just a dozen or so miles down the road. That's not exactly what Wal-Mart is talking about.
This is a weekly Saturday morning farmers market in Sacramento. Farmer Patrick Hoover is ladling blueberries into small plastic boxes and offering samples. He's driven less than 50 miles, from his 40 acres up in the foothills, to sell them. And that's what most locavores - the fans of locally grown food - say is real local food.
Wal-Mart says on the other hand anything grown in the same state is local food. Hoover says selling to Wal-Mart doesn't really appeal to him.
Mr. PATRICK HOOVER (Farmer): The quality I have, I don't do any markets like that just because my stuff is picked ripe, and the only shelf I want it on is between here and the customer at home. And sitting in any retail store is just not good for my produce.
O'MARA: But farmers who sell at such markets acknowledge their products are usually more expensive than what you find in the stores due in part to the additional labor involved. Many of Wal-Mart's local producers are large-scale farmers that can supply in bulk.
Saving on fuel costs is one of the benefits to Wal-Mart of this new locally grown strategy. And it certainly benefits local farmers. But Professor Dan Sumner says if the company's strategy catches on nationwide it could spell problems for a major growing state like California, where much is shipped elsewhere. Sumner teaches agricultural economics at UC Davis.
Professor DAN SUMNER (University of California Davis): If people decide they're going to consume locally, that means they're probably not consuming our walnuts and apricots and almonds and everything else we grow around here.
O'MARA: Still, locally grown might not be that big a selling point for Wal-Mart customers. Back in the produce aisle at the West Sacramento Wal-Mart, the locally grown theme isn't having much impact on Thomas Teeney, who says for him it's all about the household bottom line.
Mr. THOMAS TEENEY (Shopper): We're kind of on a tight budget right now, the whole economy. It's not really that great of importance to us. We just buy what's cheap.
O'MARA: For NPR News, I'm Jenny O'Mara in Sacramento.