Why Walmart's Healthy Foods Plan Takes the Right Approach


Courtesy of Walmart

Even the most strident public health advocates cautiously welcomed Walmart's plan, announced yesterday, to slash produce prices and reformulate its private-label processed foods to cut sodium and added sugars. Still, on and off the record, they worried. Where were the details about the discounted produce? Did the company really need five years to reformulate packaged foods? Would the cuts—25 percent on sodium and 10 percent of added sugars—be enough?

As a reporter in Washington, I might have given weight to such concerns about the company's timetable and pace of change. In the national debate, it's all about keeping score. But after several months of reporting on how people eat and why they make the choices they do, I think Walmart's plan strikes just the right balance.

If Walmart had promised to slash sodium and sugar by 50 percent, some shoppers—prompted by the nanny-state demagoguery from the right's culture warriors—would have rejected the products on principle.

First, the five-year timetable: Sodium, in particular, is difficult to cut from recipes, because it fundamentally affects flavor, and there is no obvious substitute as there is for oil and other fats. But the schedule also gives Walmart customers a chance to adjust their palates to new products. Americans are used to certain foods tasting a certain way and they are attached—very attached—to those tastes. A case in point: one young mother in Huntington, West Virginia, who is teaching herself to cook in an effort to wean her family off processed foods, told me she won't make homemade mac-and-cheese. It tastes wrong somehow, too eggy. "It's just not boxed mac-and-cheese," she says. "And sometimes that's what you want."

Suggestions that reductions to sodium and sugar don't go far enough also miss the point. What people eat is intensely personal, and Americans have made it clear that they don't want anyone telling them what to do—a sentiment that conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin have attempted to exploit in recent months. If Walmart had promised to slash sodium and sugar by 50 percent, some shoppers—prompted by the nanny-state demagoguery from the right's culture warriors—would have rejected the products on principle.

Based on what I've heard from the people in West Virginia, what Americans want is significant but imperceptible changes to the foods they eat—and that's if they want any change at all. Because most of them like what they are getting to eat, even if they know it isn't necessarily the best thing for them. It's what they are accustomed to. Whatever you think of Walmart, there's no denying it knows how to serve its customers.

It's the role of the public health advocate to push for more, faster. But from where I'm now living, such concerns can sound tone deaf. This is where Americans shop. More important, this is how Americans like to shop: 24 hours a day, with seemingly limitless options, all at cut-rate prices. Here in Huntington, one of the main obstacles to establishing successful farmers' markets is not a lack of demand or high prices but the limited days and hours they operate. "It's a Walmart world, 24/7, get it when you want it. That's what everyone wants," Ken Bolen, who ran the city's main farmers' market for 10 years, told me.

Of course, there are still questions that need to be answered. On a recent trip to Walmart, produce prices already were significantly lower than they are in the local grocery store. (Red peppers: $1.68 versus $2.49 at Kroger.) Would a small additional discount be enough to persuade shoppers to change their habits? [Editor's note: And Walmart might not mean an actual discount on its current prices but rather the discount it now offers relative to competitors; see Corby Kummer's post, here, for more details.]

And who will ensure that Walmart follows through? Michelle Obama has served as a catalyst for change in public and private-sector health and nutrition policies. Yet even if the Obamas win a second term, they will be headed for the door by Walmart's 2015 deadline for change.