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

This story first 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.

Add to that the fact that, whatever Walmart says about supporting farmers, doesn’t always play out in real life, as this article in the Pensacola Business Journal about a group of local farmers who have to dole out oodles of cash for a Walmart approved food safety inspector makes clear.

As to the final pledge, to open more stores in underserved areas, Walmart has always wanted to open more stores in poor neighborhoods. In fact, they had to negotiate with labor leaders and the Chicago city council and promise to raise their lowest wages when attempting to open a store in the Pullman Park area of Chicago’s South Side.

Maybe with a combination of low paying jobs at Walmart and cheaper produce (at Walmart) people in underserved communities will be able to buy produce (or at least use their food stamps to do so). But that’s not what I would call opportunity or choice.

One could argue that working at Walmart and being able to use your food stamps to buy fresh produce is better than being unemployed and shopping at the liquor store. But here I go dreaming again: This is America and we can, and should, do much better. Our citizens should not have to depend on the largest retailer on the planet to provide whatever crumbs of jobs and healthy food it chooses to provide. It’s up to society to create opportunity for all. But what’s a society when profit-seeking corporations have the same rights as people?

In a funny take on the parallel universes the left and the right live in, I’ll leave you with some gems from Media Matters.

While the left thinks Walmart is evil in a big, giant Bentonville box that bullies communities, workers, and suppliers, the right thinks that the First Lady is bullying Walmart.

From Fox Business Freedom Watch, 1/20/11:

“This is sort of like Joe Biden saying to BP, give us the $20 billion or we’ll take it? The president, through his wife of all people, says to Walmart, “Start selling what we want you to sell, or we’ll make it illegal for you to sell the other stuff.”

And from Fox Business, America’s Nightly Scoreboard, 1/20/11:

“Walmart pays protection money to the thugocracy. Yes, Walmart’s politically sensitive moves may yield profit, but Walmart has to constantly improve its image as a pre-emptive defense against leftists who hate their success, and hate the company’s resistance to labor unions.”

It’s a funny kind of logic that actually makes a lot of sense, because the truth is, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans really want to regulate business. They just have different methods of making sure it doesn’t happen.

This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.


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