Can Retailers Supercharge Michelle Obama's Food Initiatives?

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Walmart, Walgreens, and others are saying they will help boost food access in low-income areas. Are they for real?

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Michelle Obama, who has made elimination of "food deserts" a cornerstone of her campaign to end childhood obesity, announced this week that several supermarket and drug store chains—Walmart, Supervalu, and Walgreens among them—have committed to finding ways to put healthier foods into low-income areas.

The USDA issued a press release and a fact sheet on the initiative.

This week, the Food Marketing Institute released "Access to Healthier Foods: Challenges and Opportunities for Retailers in Underserved Areas." The report summarizes the risks and benefits of locating grocery stores, describes how to get local governments to provide incentives, and gives some examples of success stories.

Mrs. Obama's event was thoroughly covered by ObamaFoodorama, which notes that recent research suggests only minimal benefits from putting grocery stores into low-income areas and observes that it's going to take a lot more than just better access to encourage people in underserved areas to eat more healthfully.

Some advocates worry that the access issue is being used more as an excuse for large retail corporations to get a foothold in inner cities than it is for residents to have better food choice, and that an influx of big chains will put small grocers out of business.

Maybe, but I'm guessing that people who live in areas without decent grocery stores will be more than delighted to have them nearby, especially if the stores keep their promises to provide fresh produce.

Just for the record, the research on food deserts (or swamps as some prefer) makes it clear why this is an important issue:

Read and think.



This post also appears on Food Politics.
Image: Yuri Gripas/Reuters

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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