Why Walmart’s Nutrition Pledge Really Matters

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It was hard to miss Walmart’s big announcement last week.  I’m sure you know all about it by now, but I wanted to offer up my point of view.

I tuned in to watch part of the webcast, which featured First Lady Michelle Obama who congratulated America’s biggest grocer on its commitment.  You can view the webcast here or read the First Lady’s remarks.  Here’s what the announcement was all about.  Walmart pledged to:

  • Make healthier choices more affordable
    Including slashing the prices of fresh produce (saving consumers $1 billion/year) and eliminating a premium price for better-for-you products
  • Reformulate thousands of packaged foods by 2015
    Reducing sodium by 25% and added sugars by 15%, eliminating all trans fats
  • Develop criteria for a simple front-of-package seal
    A consistent way to identify healthier foods
  • Build new stores in areas to increase accessibility of healthier foods
    Helping to eliminate food deserts in urban areas

Throughout the webcast and immediately following, I  noticed several cynical tweets.  Soon I was reading some less than positive blog posts, including…

Why We Should Question Walmart’s Latest PR Blitz by Anna Lappe, Civit Eats on Huffington Post
Walmart’s Nutrition Initiative:  Smoke ‘n Mirrors or Real Change by Fooducate
A Skeptic’s View of Walmart’s Nutrition Initiative by Marion Nestle

A few eyebrows were raised over Michelle Obama’s participation.  Some people dismissed the press conference as a simple PR stunt.  Others just couldn’t get past the fact that this was Walmart — an often controversial chain that has been criticized for its treatment of workers and dismissal of unions, as well as its mammoth size and impact on a community.


michelle obamaWhatever you think about the country’s largest retailer, this was a big deal. Sure, we can argue that this was a PR stunt, and it’s all about making money.  But still, these changes can make a huge difference.  Here’s what our First Lady had to say…

“…today, with this announcement, the largest corporation in America is launching a new initiative that has the potential to transform the marketplace and to help American families put healthier food on their tables every single day.  This Nutrition Charter promises a real change that can have a fundamental impact in how our kids eat, you see, because when parents have the information they need about the products they buy, that puts them back in charge, so they can make good decisions for their families.

When kids are consuming these products every day, those reductions in sugar, and salt and trans-fat can really add up.  When healthier options are finally affordable, that can affect every single meal a child eats, whether it’s adding fruit at breakfast, or whole wheat bread at lunch, or some more veggies on the plate at dinner.  And when 140 million people a week are shopping at Walmart, then day by day, and meal by meal, all these small changes can start to make a big difference for our children’s health.”

Think about it:  140 million people a week shop at Walmart.  That’s an enormous number.  But it’s not just the people walking through the doors of Walmart who will benefit.  The real significance is the trickle down factor.  Walmart is the largest customer of practically every food company in the country.  The pressure is on to reformulate or innovate — or you’re shut out of getting on the shelf at Walmart.

The real reason why this move is such a big deal is Walmart’s marketplace muscle — the power it has to ignite change throughout the food industry. Walmart is not only changing the nutritional profile of its private brand, it’s calling on all the major food manufacturers to get in line.  And they’ll do it.

That’s the power of this announcement.  Yes, it’s great that Walmart is reducing the price of fresh produce.  We need to encourage the consumption of more whole foods.  That’s really important.  But we need to face the facts, families rely on packaged foods — and we shouldn’t outright condemn anything that comes in a box, bag or can.  Let’s try to make these convenience items more nutritious — reduced sodium soups, cereal and yogurt with less sugar and frozen entrees void of trans fats.

We can nudge folks to eat fresh and prepare foods from scratch using whole foods.  But I’m happy to know that when they stray from the perimeter of the grocery store, they’ll have more nutritious packaged options to choose from.

We can do all the educating we want, but people need healthier options to choose from, and they need the healthy options to be affordable.  Why shouldn’t Michelle Obama acknowledge Walmart’s nutrition initiative.  I’m glad she was part of the press conference.  She recognizes that to truly change the way America eats, we need to tackle the issue from several angles.

I applaud Walmart for this commitment.  The bar has been raised.  That’s how positive changes happen.

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