SHOCKER: Maybe Walmart’s Health Initiative Isn’t So Good

In today’s post on Food Politics articles, I dedicated a lot of space at the end to Walmart’s announcement today that it is changing some important food policies.  Marion Nestle says:

In a press conference attended by Michelle Obama, Walmart today said it will do five things:

  • Work with processed food suppliers to reduce sodium, sugars, and trans fat in hundreds of foods by 2015
  • 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

Walmart has a lot of power, clearly, and when it wants things to change, they do.  But how good is it really?  According to Nestle:

Walmart has established its own nutrition criteria for judging its own products.  These seem generous and not particularly challenging, and this is just what Pepsi, Kraft, and other companies have been doing.  These criteria are only slightly better.

The idea that Walmart is going to do its own front-of-package label to identify those products is particularly annoying. They are doing this just when the Institute of Medicine and FDA are trying to establish research-based criteria for front-of-package labels.  So here is one more company trying to preempt FDA regulations. […]

Walmart says it will price better-for-you processed foods lower than the regular versions and will develop its own supply chain as a means to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables.  This sounds good, but what about the downside?  Will this hurt small farmers? Walmart didn’t provide many details and we will have to see how this one plays out.

And then there is the one about putting smaller Walmart stores into inner cities in order to solve the problem of “food deserts.”  This also sounds good—and it’s about time groceries moved into inner cities—but is this just a ploy to get Walmart stores into places where they haven’t been wanted? Will the new stores drive mom-and-pop stores out of business?  Here too, Walmart is short on details.

Melanie Warner has a much more pointed attack on Walmart’s claims.  I suggest you read her entire article.  It is worth it.  But here’s some snippets I like:

The solution to America’s obesity problems don’t involve giving people a reason to feel better about eating more processed food. […]

The idea of making fruit and vegetables more affordable could actually make a dent in the obesity problem by helping Americans to eat healthier. Too bad neither Walmart nor Obama seem to want to address the root causes of why whole foods like fruit and vegetables are often more expensive than comparatively unhealthy, processed foods.

That would require talking about our outdated system of farm subsidies, which rewards the growers of the commodity crops that go into processed foods and ignores the farmers that grow carrots, apples and broccoli. The idea that this system is badly misaligned with public health goals is becoming more and more mainstream, and anyone that wants credibility in the obesity battle should be taking this on.

Walmart hasn’t offered many details on how it’s going to lower fruit and vegetable prices, other than to say that price reductions will flow from improvements to its supply chain, not by leaning on its already squeezed suppliers. But it’s safe to say that redirecting some of the $18 billion soybean, corn and wheat farmers pocket each year to a more diverse selection of fruit and vegetable crops would do a lot more for the price of a salad at Walmart than consolidating warehouses and tinkering with new supply-chain software.

I’ll be posting more about the reaction to Walmart’s announcement each day in my daily Food Politics posts.  I think it is important to remember that anytime we are dealing with a major corporation like Walmart, we have to assume they are doing what they are doing because it will get them more money.  The optimist in me hopes that they can achieve some sort of middle ground between profit and health but I don’t understand how.  We will just have to wait and see.

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