Sunday, July 19, 2009

Inching Toward Soylent Colourful

Walmart is not the place we chipsters like to spend our Saturdays, but we needed a lug-wrench for an upcoming trip and some tools and stains for a weekend project; so, off we went hoping to beat both the crowds and the scorching noon-day sun.

We do not share the Upscalers’ disdain for “oh.... Waaalmarts....”. The fact is that for a wide range of generic items, Walmarts offers decent quality consumer goods at a cheaper-than-usual-price. While we are appalled by Walmart’s regressive labor policies at home and its profiteering from slave-like exploitation abroad, one has to be pretty dense not to realize that toney boutiques are hardly paradigms of labor fairness and that they get their designer brands from the same overseas sweatshops as the mega outlets.

We despise neo-liberal globalization as much as our neighbor but see no point in paying a half or double price for the same item, produced by the same oppressive system. Our local Village Hardware Shoppe sells an elbow socket attachment for $8.79 . Walmarts sells a set of three, just a tad less finished, for $4.28, which do just fine for a weekend grease-monkey. Neither was made by what might be called a union shop. And while we are on the subject -- you can’t by a banana anywhere that isn’t the fruit of murder and pressing down upon the brow of the laborer.

In all events, Walmarts is all we’ve got around these parts and I’ve relied on it for most of my house, shop, garage, garden and office supplies. We’ve gotten some pretty good stuff too: a pair of mocassin trail shoes that lasted forever; a handy Bissell vacuum cleaner that keeps on sucking away with a minimal “haul-factor” and a sturdy little lawn mower that did far more than it was rated for. We’ve also gotten some Duds Royal: a Bissel steam vac that turned out to be a piece of junk and $10.00 paper shredders that jam too easily. All in all, we’ve come to appreciate Walmart as the Jumbo version of the ol’ General Store and a common sense adjunct to Brooks Brothers.

Of late, the local Hicksville Walmarts has been remodeling. Every week, everything was in a different place, while more and more items were “out of stock.” The rumour was that it was being remade into a “super store” and we were urged to be patient. A “super store” would eventually have more of everything.

The store was finally remodelled last week. It looks very clean and nice but seemed to have less of everything. I kept on looking for items that used to be there but now weren’t. Seven shelves of auto stuff were now three and half length at that. Camping gear seemed smaller too; but without taking inventory it was more of an impression than anything else. Maybe it was just better organized. However, this Saturday it was clear that there were definitely less tools than there were before.

So I asked the paint man -- an old timer at the store, if I was mistaken or if the store was carryling less tools. The paint man has one of those a grins that cross with a grimace. “Nope, you’re not mistaken,” he grinned, “they’ve more than halved my inventory too.” Before I could ask why he said, “It’s all for food.”

“Food?” I asked. “Yes, food. They’ve cut back on everything to make room for food. “Haven’t you seen the new aisles of freezers?” I had, but it did not seem to me that the extra two banks of freezers had taken up that much space.

The help at Walmarts has a reputation of being worn-out, beaten down drones; and a lot of them are. But the store also hires “old-timers” and low level double dippers who’ve had some experience in life and who, in specific and curious ways, have a certain savvy.

There was the impecably made-up and obviously alcoholic sewing shop lady who had all sorts of tips about sewing and an opinion on any number of other products and their equally good alternatives or substitutes. She imparted all this information with a wry distance that said, “Life is crap, and so here we are!” Her savoire etre, saved us from having to belabor the obvious.

Paintman, on the other hand, has a complaining way about him. He doesn’t actually complain about things, but says things in such a way that leaves one with the distinct sense that he feels whatever it is could be better, or might be worse.

“Yes,” he said, “they did a two year study and came up with the conclusion that for the next two years people are going to be focusing on basics. No time for things like paint or tools. So they shifted to food. ”

“Is that just here in Hicksville?” I asked. “What?” he replied, “you think Walmart wastes times demografing specific locations? We’re a global company with a huge inventory based on mass production. All decisions are made on a global basis.” From his hunched forward position, he turned his head toward me and grinned. “Walmarts doesn’t care about you. We’re in the business to make money and the millions are in food.... at least for the next to years. That’s what their figures came up with.”

“Well thanks for your help.” I said. “Anytime.”

Now this was far more valuable information than anyone will read in the New York Times or might pay for at some “investment firm”. Walmarts... which thinks globally mind you... has decided that for the next to years the vast army of unwashed shmoes will be “focusing on food.” Larry Summers can take his stimulus hype and chop it into a burrito.

And yet when it comes to food, Walmart and I part ways. This is not to say that one can’t find decent food items at the store. Their tuna is as “Dolphin Safe” (so called) as any other and 70 cents cheaper. Their olive oil, while not cold pressed is a decent deal, as is their instant coffee... for those of us who are instant coffee aficionados. (It's a cultural thing.) But for the most part, Walmart Food, comes out of the other end of Moloch’s Maw.

At first blush, Walmart’s food concept has an appearance of dietary common sense. The food section provides canned vegetables, rice, pasta, cooking oil, condiments, cereals, eggs, milk, cheese, butter, some processed meats, bread, coffee, tea and, of course, velveeta and spam. While this is hardly the stuff of the Mediterranean diet, it does conform to something like the government recommended basic daily intake pyramid. Walmart is not a grocery store and so it seems unfair to blame it for carrying canned green beans instead of fresh brussel sprouts.

But on closer inspection, what is being fobbed off as food is a dietary crime. The canned vegetables are simply varieties of sodium-water and the canned fruits, of high fructose corn syrup. Each can contains a certain amount of tasteless plant pulp, but otherwise what is offered up behind the pretty label is simply forms of salt and fructose.

The milk, cheese, butter and processed meats are basically varietal forms of grease, although they do contain traces of protein amidsts the chemical flavorings and preservatives. Most of these products also contain high amounts of salt and often fructose as well.

In addition to these “staple basics” Walmart sells what might be style “processed basics” -- frozen pizza, frozen waffles, frozen pop-tarts, frozen chicken nuggets and frozen dinners. But although the colourful boxes present the image of difference, the actual contents were simply forms of sugar, salt and grease with the occasional bleached grain or processed meat-stuff thrown in. In essence, Walmart Food was a monotonous triad, decked out to look different and exiciting.

This is not to deny that, at a certain level, all food breaks down to fats, carbohydrates and proteins which, at some point or another, are themselves broken down further into glucose. But we have also learned over the years that foods contain a plethora of vitamins, minerals and enzymes that are essential and healthful in myriads of ways we are still uncovering. Without delving into a prolonged nutritional discourse, it may suffice to say that a fresh sweet asparagus snapped from its stalk is simply not the same thing as the lifeless soggy green stick of pulp swimming in acrid salt water that can only be made, at least flavourful, by adding forms and grease and more salt.

And so --- staring at Hicksville Walmart’s shiny new freezer display -- it occured to us that Walmart Food was actually very close to offering mere variations of a Uni-Source. Those who have read Omnivors Dilemma, -- Michael Pollan’s fascinating analysis of the American Factory Food System -- will immediately grasp that I am talking about corn. To simplify Pollard’s entertaining and informative exposition, corn is at the source of virtually all of our food in one way or another. Bacon and eggs in the morning? It’s just corn-fed pig and corn fed chicken, and milk from the corn-fed cow.

Clearly the chicken, pig and cow add their own “animal processes” to the corn turning it into meat and dairy protein, so that our breakfast plate is at least one step away from corn-stuff. But to say as much, does not take into account the extent to which natural animal processes and factory processes have become so entertwined as to be indistinguishable. The cow’s milk is not simply what the cow does with corn, but what it does to corn with the aid of hormones and antibiotics without which it could not process the corn at all. And all this to say nothing of the petrochemically enhanced kibble that goes into the average pound of hamburger “meat”.

Whatever might be said of animal contributions to the substance of our food chain, the case is far more primary when it comes to breakfast cereal which, as Pollan points out, is not even whole grain but simply "exploded" nutritionally worthless kernels that cost 4 cents to produce and sell for $4.00 a box.

At first, Walmart’s endless varieties of “sub-primary” grease, salt and sugar, would appear to be two steps removed from a single source -- a further processing of the meat, milk and egg material. However, this further processing is mostly just industrial cooking -- a mere rearranging of the ingredients into something called a “pizza” or “pop-over” or chocolate (flavoured) chip cookie. Should we be annoyed at Walmart for selling "cereal" at all or should we be grateful it only charges $2.00 a box?

As we were ruminating over these facts, a friend of ours called to tell us that corporations were investing money into growing and harvesting sea algae. “What for?” “They say for fuel,” he replied, “but I don’t believe them.”

Well... we're not quite at the stage of "reconstituting" human body parts and, if our friend's incredulity is correct, we may never get to that stage. Either way, Walmart’s food display was not Nature’s Cornucopia, but rather a testimonial to artificial ingenuity. It was peddling huge quantities of grease, fructose and salt, within a wrapping of leeched and bleached grains with some chemically engineered, industrially processed proteins thrown in.

And the effects of this “focus” were all too evident as sallow, obese forms of human lard limped and waddled down the aisles filling their carts with colorful bags and boxes and jars of Walmart’s Food Triad. As paintman said, “We’re not in the business for you”

©WCG, 2009