Wal-Mart remains a major player in U.S. nutrition and Ron McCormick, the company’s Senior Director for Sustainable Agriculture, is keen to see regional produce hubs “around each of our 41 food distribution centers. Today, we are working to establish a supply base to supply those distribution centers, with a goal of having fresh produce that was harvested at noon one day and then in-store by noon the next day.”

McCormick told the committee he “dreams of” having food hubs near each of the company’s food distribution centers. That “would be an answer to my personal prayers and a great part of our business model. For us, we’re talking about the more sustainable agriculture and building a supply chain that can sustain itself. It’s an integrated supply chain, not just buying from lots of small farmers.”

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, committee ranking member, asked McCormick why it is more difficult for a grower of 50 acres to implement food safety standards and undergo food safety audits than it is for a larger operation. Roberts said that seems counterintuitive.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily harder, it’s a matter of the obstacles being greater for a small farmer that doesn’t have a lot of capital and time to invest,” said McCormick.

What sort of obstacles?

“A piece of it is simply the cost of the audit itself,” replied McCormick. “For a small farmer to pay for an audit, it will average about $1,500. … It’s difficult. One of the great values of routine audits is more than just what the auditor helps prevent happening.

“Repeated visits for an audit help a farmer get better, whether small or large. It helps him develop a system that prevents the threats to food safety from occurring.

“So, often for a very small farmer wanting to grow to be a bigger farmer, there is a capital outlay that’s (will be required). And it’s a new experience for a small farmer, a daunting experience.”

Does Wal-Mart require third-party food safety audits of all suppliers regardless of size?

McCormick: “All suppliers regardless of size. Our smallest farmers, we have a sort of step-up program where we work to take them to GFSI certification standards, the highest standards around.”

What’s the cost of an audit of a grower with 50 acres of land?

“An audit can cost from $750 to about $1,500 – plus, sometimes, the travel cost of the audit,” said McCormick. “Often, the travel costs are the most expensive. One of the things our small farmers tend to benefit from is our food safety department and the farmers around one of our distribution centers coordinate activities.”

How do those running farmers markets ensure that produce sold is truly locally-grown?

“That was a big issue for us starting in 2004/2005,” said Hardin. “We’ve worked several years to figure it out. We’ve determined that ‘source verification’ – actually creating markets where we require a source verification where we go on-farm, some market management goes there – is necessary. We can’t have a successful market without it.

“Imposters will come into the market (otherwise). They put on their farmer hat and sell things and tell customers they come from the local areas. That really displaces the local farmer. So, it’s very important to me that we verify the source of the produce.”

How has the expansion of EBT machines impacted farmers markets?

We had a slow start (in sales) but, right now, seems to be gaining momentum,” said Hardin. “I’d like to see an expansion of the program or access to more of the electronic wireless devices…

“One of the biggest barriers is just an awareness of where the markets are and that EBT is accepted at farmers markets. We’re lacking a campaign in our state to get it out there. But as awareness grows, we’re seeing much more interest and participation each year and we’re really building on that. I’ve seen a lot of growth recently.

How can states work best to get food from a regional or local area to schools? More flexible delivery options, for example?

Hardin and colleagues would like to set up “aggregation processing facilities geared directly for our schools. (The biggest) concern from the schools is that there is no inventory of local food and they’re required to do a lot more meal planning throughout the school year.

“So, we want to have some type of inventory, some kind of projection of what will be available for the school year so they can adequately plan for their menus; regional markets, more organized distribution centers.”