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Walmart Announces Plan to Help Americans Eat Better -- Are We Doomed or Saved?

Before you jump off to Walmart bashing, let's give this a little thought.

This storyfirst appeared on EcoSalon.

Last week, Walmart announced (with the help of the Michelle Obama megaphone) that it was embarking on a five-year plan to help America eat healthier.

The plan involves reducing the amounts of sodium, transfats, and sugar in its Great Value line of goods, pushing its suppliers to do the same, lowering the prices on fresh fruits and vegetables to make them more affordable, and building more stores in under-served communities.

The optimist on my right shoulder says, “With the incredible power Walmart has to influence the supply chain, this could have a real impact on the way America eats. If Walmart can get Kraft and other big food manufacturers to reformulate their products, then everyone will benefit, even the 10 people who don’t shop at Walmart.” If people are going to eat packaged food (which they are) shouldn’t it be healthier?” And, “Isn’t a low-paying grocery job coming to your neighborhood better than no job at all?”

Those are the same things a realist would say. Because, well, Walmart isn’t going away anytime soon and until Congress starts doing its job to ensure healthy food and equal opportunity for all of our nation’s citizens, we’ll just have to take what we can get.

The first lady is a realist. She mentioned in her remarks during the press conference that almost half the population of the U.S shops at Walmart each week. Why not go where you can have the greatest possible impact? The first lady is trying to get something done here. Who can blame her for going where the real power is?

Corporations have become citizens and our lawmakers are more interested in blocking the proposals of the other party than in actually enacting policies that will improve the dismal state of our nation’s collective health. This means people who care about such things are put in the position of praising Walmart for taking measures that the company wouldn’t do if it didn’t, in the end, serve their bottom line.

The cynic on my left shoulder thinks there is something terribly wrong with this.

When we leave it up to packaged food companies and retailers to determine what is “healthier,” we’re in trouble. Just this week, it was reported by Marion Nestle that packaged food companies are developing yet another new label that not only lists calories, fats, sodium, etc. but also “positives.” It’s obvious that any industry-led healthier food initiative is going to become another marketing tactic.

Marketing isn’t education and education is what the public needs.

In my ideal world, there would be a giant public education campaign around healthy whole foods, information about how to shop for, store and prepare them, and family-friendly employment policies that will leave people with the time to cook real food. Oh and the farm bill would have to be written so that it doesn’t subsidize the kind of crap that sits on the interior shelves of our supermarkets in favor of healthy whole foods.

I know. I’m dreaming.

The part of the initiative that sounds the most interesting is Walmart’s pledge to drop the prices of fruits and vegetables. Ever sensitive to charges that it squeezes its suppliers to get its prices so low, making it hard for farmers to break even, Walmart execs promise that it will cut into its own profits, not farmers’. The company hopes to do this through supply chain tweaks and make up for lower prices in higher sales volume. If Walmart is so eager to cut its own profits for the nation’s health, why can’t they pay their employees a living wage that will allow them to buy real food, instead of relying on taxpayers to foot the bill? It’s been well-documented that employees of Walmart and other retail chains often make so little money that they qualify for taxpayer-funded food stamps and public assistance.

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