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Many Questions Face The New “Healthier” Walmart

Walmart announced that it will promote healthier food, and though the Let's Move! campaign supports it, critics are skeptical.

Walmart

Photo: mjb84 (flickr)

Although Walmart has promised a healthier superstore amid much fanfare, will it continue to satisfy its stockholders while promoting healthier eating in a meaningful way?

The Grocery Giant Has Spoken

Of every dollar spent on groceries in the United States, the equivalent of 25 cents goes to Walmart. The director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest even compares Walmart’s influence in the food market to that of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

This huge swaying power on what ends up on American’s dinner plates makes the corporation a tempting target for those interested in enacting serious changes in the way the country considers and consumes food.

This is why, after a year of closed-door negotiations, Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign has thrown its support behind Walmart’s new pledge to sell healthier products.

At a press conference on January 20, Walmart made five promises that it says it will fulfill by 2015:

  • Work with processed food suppliers to reduce sodium, sugars, and trans fat in hundreds of foods
  • Develop its own front-of-package seal to identify healthier products
  • Make healthier processed foods more affordable
  • Put a new, different kind of Walmart store in low-income “food deserts”
  • Increase charitable support for nutrition programs

Using Its Power For Good

When discussing any policy change about Walmart, conversation inevitably centers around its power.

As the nation’s largest retailer, access to the Americans who regularly shop at its 2,750 stores is unmatched. Landing a space in Walmart’s aisles can make or break an entire company. Even food producing giants like Frito-Lay and Pepsi admit that between 10-20% of their sales are through Walmart’s stores.

Sausages For Sale At Walmart

Photo: jasonlam (flickr)

In a study released by the University of North Carolina, researchers found that the presence of a Walmart Supercenter in communities was tracked to significant rises in obesity rates.

Because of this influence, advocates for the new Walmart policy say that if the corporation makes healthier foods more marketable through its new branding system, the food producers will respond by making healthier products.

Walmart promises that by providing fresh fruits and vegetables at lower prices, it will not pay a lower retail to farmers and make up the difference through higher sales volume.

The corporation has added incentive to change its policies in order to preserve its image. In a study released by the University of North Carolina, researchers found that the presence of a Walmart Supercenter in communities was tracked to significant rises in obesity rates.

It’s All About The Label

A giant food provider’s promise to support more nutritious eating is very exciting for promoting national health. However, as many food specialists, bloggers, and policy makers have pointed out, there are several major flaws that can be seen already in Walmart’s announcement.

The first is that Walmart is setting its own nutrition criteria for the food labels that will be included on packaging. Not only does this fly in the face of the FDA’s new food labeling system, but it will be tempting for Walmart to set a low standard so that processed foods can appear more healthy than they actually are.

Walmart has already released its guidelines which officials admit are not tough enough, especially in the amount of added sugars and salt that it deems “healthy.”

Marion Nestle, of the website Food Politics, reports that Walmart representatives told her that they are making their own standards because, “The FDA moves slowly and the public needs this information now.” She isn’t convinced.

Friends In High Places

Secondly, the Let’s Move! campaign is giving Walmart a lot of positive, free press based on promises the company is making and not on any actual actions it has completed.

The 5-year timespan that Walmart has given itself to complete the change to healthier food will make it difficult for the government to regulate its progress, and Walmart doesn’t have any legal responsibilities to uphold its new standards anyway. Michele Simon of Grist comments:

Does anyone remember how McDonald’s promised to stop using trans fats, but oops, didn’t? Or how about the time Ruby Tuesday’s promised to list nutrition facts on its menus until they decided that wasn’t working out so well. And then there’s the soda industry, which has made so many broken promises, it’s hard to keep up.

Michelle Obama and Kids at the Announcement of the Let's Move Campaign

Photo: Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton, Let's Move (flickr)

First Lady Michelle Obama launched Let's Move, a nationwide campaign to combat childhood obesity in February 2010.

Put Your Money Where Your Health Is

Finally, Walmart is a corporate, for-profit chain. Even with all of the community service the corporation sponsors, it would be naive think that Walmart would sacrifice its profits for social work.

As long as the new plan for healthier food keeps shareholders making money, it will work.

But if enacting real change to the healthiness of what Americans eat threatens the company’s success, it will change plans. If its past history with promoting processed foods, environmental waste, and poor working conditions are any testimony, Walmart will likely continue to put the business’ profitability before any of its other goals.

This Crazy Plan Might Work After All

It will be interesting to watch how Walmart and the Let’s Move! campaign will work out this healthier eating plan and if it will have any lasting effect on the obesity epidemic.

There are many more questions to be asked:

  • Will Walmart’s new health conscious standpoint hurt the niche markets of health foods?
  • Is there such thing as a healthy processed food item?
  • Will consumers even accept healthier foods?

But, if it works like it’s supposed to, healthier food will be more easily and conveniently available to a giant amount of American shoppers who might not have had the time, means, or desire to seek it out in the first place.

Children in particular stand to benefit if their provider is set in a Walmart shopping pattern.

Overall the Walmart health reform is an idealistic effort, and the best case scenario will be that it provides just the right amount of incentive for other businesses to reconsider the quality of the foods they sell.

Read More:

  • Walmart Shifts Strategy to Promote Healthy Foods (The New York Times)
  • What are we to think about Walmart’s healthy food initiatives? (Food Politics)
  • How Walmart execs fleeced the White House on ‘healthy food’ (Grist)
Julie Rooney

Julie Rooney is a vegetarian, musician, and artist who primarily works in video and new media. Currently she is the director of Low Road Gallery, a non-profit contemporary art gallery located in Greencastle, Indiana.

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