The McAllen Public Library in McAllen, Texas, is the size of 2.5 football fields -- the largest single-story library in the United States. But in its former life, its size wasn't all that unusual. That's because the McAllen library used to be a Walmart.
A few months back, we ran a post about the invisibility of modern hunger that looked at the way the current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- with its use of EBT cards that fly under the radar -- has made it easy for many to ignore the rampant food insecurity in this country. Meanwhile the use of SNAP benefits, or food stamps as they are often called, has gone through the roof (it rose from $30 billion in 2007 to $72 billion in 2011).
A new report released today called “Food Stamps, Follow the Money” suggests that this invisibility also extends to the mechanisms behind SNAP, and raises questions about just how much food makers, retailers, and big banks may be profiting from food stamps.Not only do big food manufacturers such as Coca-Cola, Kraft, and Mars benefit from the SNAP economy, but retailers (such as Walmart) get a cut of those taxpayer dollars, while banks bring in processing fees.Or, as the report’s author (and occasional Grist contributor) Michele Simon sees it, SNAP “represents the largest, most overlooked corporate subsidy in the farm bill.”
Not that long ago, some folks were arguing that clean energy -- unlike climate change, which had been irredeemably stained by partisanship (eww!) -- would bring people together across ideological lines. Persuaded by the irrefutable wisdom of wonks, we would join hands across the aisle to promote common-sense solutions. It wouldn't be partisan, it would be ... post-partisan.
Some day, I will stop mocking the people who said that. But not today. The error is an important one and it is still made regularly, especially by hyper-educated U.S. elites. They think clean energy is different from climate change, that it won't get sucked into the same culture war. They are wrong.
On clean energy, the material/financial aspects of the conflict are the easiest to understand. Wind, solar, and the rest threaten the financial dominance and political influence of dirty energy. Last week, the Guardianbroke the story of a confidential memo laying out a plan to demonize and discredit clean energy, meant to coordinate the plans/messages of several big right-wing super PACs funded by dirty-energy money.
At the bottom of that same piece, though, is one of the best expressions I've ever seen of the cultural and psychological aspects of the conflict. Witness:
Opposing Obama's energy policies was a natural fit for conservatives, said Marita Noon, a conservative activist from New Mexico who was at the meeting. "The American way, what made CostCo and Walmart a success, is to use more and pay less. That's the American way." The president's green policies however were the reverse, she said.
"President Obama wants us to pay more and use less."
Not for the first time, it strikes me that conservatives understand the stakes of this struggle much better than liberals and centrists do, especially at a gut level. They're on the wrong side of it, but at least they get it.
A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran a story on the front page of the business section under the headline "Unexpected Ally Helps Walmart Cut Waste." The retailer's accomplice, readers of the article learned, is the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the largest and most influential environmental groups in the country. EDF has been working closely with Walmart on its sustainability efforts since 2005, and has even opened an office in Bentonville, Ark., where Walmart is headquartered.
The Times noted that EDF "does not accept contributions from Walmart or other corporations it works with." EDF itself often mentions this when the subject of Walmart comes up, making note of it on its website, as well as in blog posts and other communications about its work with the company.
But, while it's true that Walmart does not fund EDF (either directly or through its internal, company-run foundation), the environmental group does receive an awful lot of money from the Walton Family Foundation. Since 2004, the foundation has given EDF more than $53 million. Last year, the foundation's $13.7 million grant to the group amounted to about 15 percent of EDF's budget. After readers brought this to the attention of The Times, the newspaper amended its story and ran a correction noting the Walton foundation's grants to EDF.
Walmart spent much of last week burnishing its green image and touting its progress "toward becoming a more sustainable, responsible company." All the while, those at the very top of the company, including CEO Mike Duke, knew that The New York Times was about to publish an explosive story that would lay to waste the notion that Walmart cares about anything other than its own growth.
The Times story presents credible evidence that Walmart's Mexican subsidiary spent millions of dollars bribing local officials in order to speed up permits for new stores, get "zoning maps changed," and make "environmental objections vanish." When top executives, including Duke, learned of the bribes in 2005, they declined to notify U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, shut down Walmart's own internal investigation, and continued to lavish promotions on the alleged ringleader, Eduardo Castro-Wright, who currently serves as Walmart's vice chair.
In the days since the Times story broke, attention has turned to the potential punishment Walmart might face. A criminal investigation is underway at the U.S. Department of Justice, which, under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, could pursue prosecutions that might lead to substantial fines and even jail time for Duke and others implicated. The Mexican government, meanwhile, has initiated its own inquiry.
If justice is to be served in this case, though, Walmart must not only face fines and prison terms, but also be forced to sell off a sizeable number of its ill-gotten Mexican stores. By bribing officials, Walmart was able to crush its competitors, opening new stores so fast they had no time to react. In just a few years, Walmart came out of nowhere to dominate the Mexican economy.
But, as any athlete or other competitor knows, if you're caught cheating your way to a win, then you most certainly do not get to keep the prize.
There are lots of hard questions to be asked about Walmart's commitment to sustainability -- and very few of them are answered in the company's new Global Responsibility Report.
This year's glossy, photo-rich report goes on for 126 pages about how great Walmart is to its employees, suppliers, the environment, and the communities in which it operates. The section on sustainability seems thorough at first glance — there are certainly lots of statistics and small details on this or that program. But if you try to really digest the content and compare it to reports from previous years, you begin to realize that much of the data is elusive. The same stats aren't reported consistently each year. The metrics shift; promises touted one year are glossed over the next.
More significant are the many fundamental problems with Walmart's business model that these reports do not address, or even mention. It's as though, by loading up on pretty pictures and keeping the figures and details narrow, Walmart hopes readers will miss the forest for the trees.
Now we can add labor abuse to shrimp's laundry list of problems.
A group of shrimp workers has been protesting dismal conditions in a Thai factory for weeks. The factory, Phatthana Seafood, is one of several brands under a corporate umbrella called PTN Group, and is distributed by Rubicon, a major supplier to Walmart here in the U.S.
Not only is Phatthana being accused of skimping on the pay they’ve promised to workers (and keeping a percentage of it against the debt workers incur to travel to the factory -- a practice described in the human rights community as “debt bondage”), but they’ve also reportedly been keeping the workers’ passports and releasing them only for a (steep) fee.
Mother Jones has an investigation of Walmart in its March/April issue, and it comes with some pretty stark statistics. Among the facts on display in MoJo's chart: Walmart stores use five times as much electricity as the state of Vermont; Walmart's net sales exceed the GDP of Norway; Walmart stores' combined square footage dwarfs Manhattan; and Walmart stores emit more CO2 than the 50 lowest-emitting countries combined.
Reforming our food system is a Herculean task; one that might intimidate Hercules himself. Willie Nelson and Anna Lappe summed up the challenge recently on the Huffington Post:
Of the 40,000 food items in a typical U.S. grocery store, more than half are now brought to us by just 10 corporations. Today, three companies process more than 70 percent of all U.S. beef, Tyson, Cargill and JBS. More than 90 percent of soybean seeds and 80 percent of corn seeds used in the United States are sold by just one company: Monsanto. Four companies are responsible for up to 90 percent of the global trade in grain. And one in four food dollars is spent at Walmart.
While I generally have nothing but praise for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), its Green Power Partnership program falls short of the agency’s usual standard. In particular, the program, by providing media recognition for participating companies who procure renewable energy, inflates the activities of large companies at the expense of businesses whose clean energy transformation is much more meaningful.
Take Walmart, who appears at No. 3 in the EPA’s Green Power Partner rankings with an annual procurement of 872 million kilowatt-hours (enough to power approximately 87,000 homes per year). The EPA inaccurately credits the super-retailer with getting 28 percent of its electricity from green power, because the partnership program allows Walmart to cherry-pick its only two regional divisions that have made any strides on green energy (California and Texas).