Courtesy of Walmart
This morning Walmart made a big announcement on improving nutrition in its private-label and other foods. Like everything Walmart does, this is big news because of the company's scale. And this was bigger, because Michelle Obama appeared at the announcement ceremony, which was held at The Arc, a community center in Washington that houses nonprofits focused on helping children and families "reach their full potential." (You can see the webcast here.) It's rare for the First Lady to appear at a single corporation's announcement, and a sign of how engaged she and her Let's Move team, including their Partnership For A Healthier America, have been with Walmart on the initiative. Their goal is to reduce obesity, particularly childhood obesity, and no one sells more food than Walmart. Attempts on its part to make healthier products easier to find and easier to afford can arguably make a bigger difference to the national diet than federal regulations--and certainly have a faster impact.
Whether to leave regulation and decisions about what goes into the food people buy to the marketplace or to the government is of course one of the largest debates in the country. Before getting into the particulars of today's announcement, it's worth noting two things. First, no one at the White House can be unaware of ongoing controversy over Walmart's labor practices. And the very public support for Walmart will not mean that the White House nutrition team, led by Sam Kass, will stop the work it is already deep into with other corporations and food manufacturers, and with many federal and state agencies, to improve access to fresher food and opportunities to exercise. But Walmart has a power across the entire supply chain, from farm to transportation to store, that no other marketer or grocer has. If and when it can choose to be a force for good—and if that impulse is largely the result of market demand and market share it doesn't want competitors to claim—the First Lady's team (and anyone else who cares about the country's health) would be foolish not to try to guide the company in the directions it wants to see the whole food industry head.
Leveling the playing field, improving the default environment, reducing things people don't even know are there and can be harming them: that's the public health approach, and one I heartily defend.
Of the "key elements" Walmart announced, several are ones I reported on last March: shorten travel distances between farm and distribution centers, support smaller farmers than it had previously bought from, bring back staple crops to areas where they had vanished because of competition from California and Florida, and bring fresh food into "food deserts" both in cities and, importantly, rural areas without supermarkets.
Today's announcement made larger promises than the company has made in the past. When it made the program I had reported on official, last October, it promised to sell $1 billion globally in food sourced directly from small, medium, and local farmers. Today it said that it would save consumers $1 billion a year on fresh fruit and vegetables. How? The announcement was vague on specifics, but they sound like the ones I reported on: "sourcing, pricing, and transportation and logistics initiatives." Andrea Thomas, Walmart's vice president of sustainability, kept repeating that phrase, without adding more specifics, when she was asked about produce pricing on two conference calls following the announcement ceremony. When I spoke with her late in the afternoon, she did name some. Reductions in packaging, different ways of packing trucks, and investments in the "cold chain" of distributing fresh produce, she said, could lower both waste and prices.
As to whether this meant actually lowering prices on the produce Walmart already sells, it sounds like the answer is no—what I expected, because the "Heritage Agriculture" program I wrote about last year planned to be able to make up in shorter transport costs the higher costs of buying from small producers. Any further price reductions would surely come deeper out of farmers' pockets than selling to Walmart already does. Leslie Dach, vice president of communications, implied that the company would also minimize waste and save money on displays in order to bring produce prices down. But the main savings he mentioned were "market basket" comparisons with produce bought in other stores—where, of course, Walmart has always won on price.
In my piece last year, I defended Walmart as providing fresh food to food deserts, particularly rural ones, but hadn't heard the company use that term. Today it did, saying that it would "address food deserts by building stores in underserved communities that are in need of fresh and affordable groceries." When that means rural communities, objections can be scarce and welcome strong--and Thomas confirmed to me that Walmart's real estate and store-development departments will look at rural as well as urban food deserts. When that means New York City, Vermont, and other cities and states that want to support local businesses, that can mean fierce opposition—as it does now in East Harlem, a controversy a questioner brought up in the brief Q&A after the main announcement. (Dach repeated the company's arguments that stores provide jobs and increase a city's tax revenues.) Walmart didn't name any particular areas with food deserts, or announce numbers, or give a timeline for building, nor did Thomas give me one: "it takes time" to build stores, she said, not to mention community acceptance (which she didn't mention).