walmartFrom left to right: Michael Pollan, Walmart’s Jack Sinclair, Jib Ellison, Walmart’s sustainability consultant, and Edible Education co-teacher, Nicki Henderson.Photo by Irene Florez. You can read her article about the event on Oakland Local. Like or not, Walmart is a force to be reckoned with in the food world. The biggest grocery retailer in the U.S. is now said to control between 20 and 30 percent of the American food market. Reformers looking to improve our food system increasingly understand that — much like China in the climate debate — Walmart is an 800-lb. gorilla that can’t be ignored.

This understanding helped fill a packed auditorium for a UC Berkeley class called Edible Education 101 earlier this week, where Michael Pollan interviewed Jack Sinclair, the executive vice president of grocery merchandise for Walmart. (The class, co-taught by Pollan and People’s Grocery’s Nicki Henderson and organized by the Chez Panisse Foundation, is also open to the general public, though tickets are limited.)

Pollan pointed out that many in the food movement don’t trust the companies that have created and profited from our industrialized food system. Can big corporations help fix something they broke themselves?

“I’m actually of two minds on this question,” Pollan said: sure, he’s excited by the tremendous energy behind food alternatives like organic farming, food co-ops, and farmers’ markets — but he also believes we’ll need larger changes to make good, healthy food accessible to everyone.

“The upside — if there is an upside — to having a highly concentrated food economy where a very small number of corporations exert tremendous power is that when they move, everything changes,” he said. He pointed to McDonald’s decision, following years of complaints from customers and animal rights groups, to stop tolerating inhumane livestock slaughter. “The way the whole industry slaughtered animals changed overnight,” he said. “You don’t have to love McDonald’s to see that engaging with them might actually produce some positive results.”

Of course, the downside — and there is a downside — to engaging in conversations with representatives of powerful corporations is that they will spend the bulk of the time telling you what their company is doing right. And later, if they do make changes based on external pressure, they’ll frame it as if they’ve simply discovered a new way to be right.

The key, then (and I’m sure Pollan could teach a course in this, too, by now) is to watch your opponent as you would a dangerous animal in the wild. Let him move around at will. Let him feel proud of those talking points. But keep watch for the smallest fissures in his argument, the cracks that illustrate when he has heard your opposition and might just be forced to agree in retrospect.

And this was precisely the dance that occurred the other night. Sinclair, a compact Scotsman with a thick accent, gave a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation detailing Walmart’s sustainability goals and local food initiative. He boasted about some comparatively small changes, like the fact that the company is now sourcing its apple juice concentrate from fallen Washington apples instead of foreign imports. And he stuck to the company mantra: low prices, low prices, low prices.

“Our philosophy has always been to provide the lowest price possible,” he said, as an image of one of the first Walmart stores flashed on screen. (How simple, almost bucolic it looked by comparison to the giant blue boxes that now dot the American landscape.) These prices, added Sinclair, are crucial to their average customer, whose annual income he described as “well below the $25,000 mark.”

Here was a basic premise few would argue with. For those hit hardest by the latest recession and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor in this country, food decisions have taken a grim turn. “Customers are making trade-down choices at the end of the month,” added Sinclair. “It’s all we can do to keep up with price elasticity.”

Of course, we can see Walmart as a safety net here to catch — and feed — the people at the bottom of the class system. Or we can see it as a mechanism that has helped put us where we are today.

For instance, a 2007 study held Walmart responsible for reducing the total earnings of U.S. retail workers nationwide by $4.5 billion a year (accounting not only for the company’s own low wages but for the way its presence tends to depress wages in the surrounding area). The median wage across the food chain is currently around $21,692, or $11.05 an hour. Meanwhile, Walmart’s core customers — women and people of color — are disproportionately likely to hold jobs in the food industry. And thanks in part to those always-low prices, seven of the nation’s lowest-paying jobs are in the food industry.

Pollan alluded to these points. He described an epiphany he had in Garden City, Kansas, while writing about the feedlot and slaughter businesses there. He visited a local Walmart late one night and noticed a kind of cheap meat, tenderized by injected saline solution and other artificial preservatives, that he’d never seen in his own area. “And there were the people I’d seen working at the slaughterhouse — this was the meat they could afford to buy. So I saw this whole non-virtuous cycle of low wages and low prices.”

Sinclair, who seemed predictably hell-bent on echoing the language and values the sustainable food community has put forth in recent years while simultaneously positioning Walmart as part of the solution, was unflappable.  

He argued that making meat affordable for working-class Americans is a success in itself. When his mother grew up in the United Kingdom, he added, “There was no meat you could get on the ration book. And today when I go home they still think it’s a real treat to get red meat.” He hailed the American meat industry as having done “a pretty remarkable job of bringing access to poor people.” And he promised that the saline solution-injected meat Pollan had observed would soon be going off the shelves, “because it’s not enough for us to give people cheap food — we have to give them good food.”

And so the conversation went. Pollan asked insightful questions, as did the course’s co-teacher, Nikki Henderson, who runs the Oakland-based People’s Grocery,  and several members of the audience; then Sinclair pulled out one talking point or another about Walmart’s remarkable successes and its devotion to its customers.

When asked about the company’s recent commitment to helping reduce the number of food deserts by opening a new round of smaller stores in urban areas — mocked by Stephen Colbert as a “Trojan Cantaloupe” mean
t to expand Walmart’s footprint — Sinclair responded, “no one’s going to force them to come and shop at Walmart.”

Pollan brought up Walmart’s latest announcement that it would reduce sodium, trans-fats and other unhealthy nutrients in its “house brand” of processed foods: “There is a school of thought…that says that tweaking processed food doesn’t really do that much, compared to getting people off processed food, and onto fresh produce.” Was Walmart going to work toward that end? Sinclair responded, “I don’t think it’s part of our job to try to convince people to buy something they don’t want to buy.”

At the heart of the Walmart message lay a kind of magical thinking. When discussing its promises to small businesses in the food chain, Sinclair proclaimed: “We want people’s margins to go up, to be as sustainable as possible, and we want healthy food to be more accessible.” Yet these three factors are naturally at odds with one another  – even without a multi-national profit-seeking middleman in the picture.

What about raising wages to for the company’s 2.1 million “associates” worldwide, or signing on to a watershed Fair Food Agreement for Florida’s tomato workers — a game-changer for the lowest paid sector of the food chain that Walmart has held out on, despite near-industry wide compliance?

To the latter, Sinclair pointed to a company-wide ethical sourcing policy “the company takes very seriously,” but did he not detail what the policy might entail.

And then there just might have been a small opening — one of those fissures through which some actual change could eke through.  

“We’re looking at [the Fair Food Agreement],” he said. “I think they’re looking for a premium, but we have considered it.”

 Pause. Then back to a talking point.

“We have a fundamental belief that there are some ethical standards that cannot be broken. That’s our policy at the moment.”