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In Austin taste test, Walmart holds its own against Whole Foods

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

For Atlantic Monthly's March issue, food writer Corby Kummer devised a brilliant taste test: Using similar ingredients purchased from Walmart and Whole Foods, create two identical meals and ask tasters to pick which they preferred.

Here's the catch: The tasting panel didn't know what was being tested beyond taste. They knew that the ingredients came from two sources, but not that one meal came from the world's largest company and the other was from the pioneering Austin-based natural grocer.

What better restaurant for this task than Austin's own Fino, whose chef Jason Donoho sources many of his ingredients from local farms? Kummer gathered more than a dozen food-connected folks, most of them Austinites, for the test. The results will shake anyone's preconceived notions of the quality of food found on the shelves of both stores: The first two courses from Walmart — made with mixed greens, spinach, goat cheese and raw almonds — beat those from Whole Foods. Tasters preferred the chicken and panna cotta made with Whole Foods ingredients.

The majority of Kummer's article (available at http://bit.ly/walmarttest) explores Walmart's attempts to "go local" by encouraging farms within a day's drive of its warehouses to grow crops that currently are hauled across the country from states like California and Florida.

It's ironic, of course, that Walmart is attempting to forge relationships with the small farmers whose livelihood they squashed in previous years in the relentless quest for low prices. At a press conference late last year, I heard from Walmart officials, as well as a farmer or two, about this new initiative, which Kummer points out is a clear attempt to tap into the quickly growing "locavore" market.

At the Austin press event, I found a handful of products — including potatoes, corn, zucchini, squash, mushrooms and oranges — with a "locally grown" sign and the Department of Agriculture's Go Texan logo, but no mention of exactly where in this gigantic agriculture state the produce came from.

The bright lights and cookie-cutter produce were a far cry from in-season, heirloom varieties found at any of the area farmers' markets. Patrons of these markets, as well as those who prefer Whole Foods, won't be making the switch to shopping at Walmart any time soon, but the company's efforts can't be ignored.

When you're a company that's making more money in a day than every single farmers' market in the country had made in the past decade, a move like this has the potential to change the game, especially when your produce beats Whole Foods' in a blind taste test.

The complicated network of farmers and distributors required to keep Walmart shelves stocked, combined with the reputation Walmart has of doing whatever it takes to keep prices as low as possible, in no way fits the traditional locavore ethic, but I'm hoping their massive buying power can have a positive effect — for farmers and consumers — in the long run.

I'm probably wearing rose-colored glasses, but I long ago learned that no matter how long you pretend Walmart doesn't exist, it always will, and the majority of Americans will continue to shop there.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504