Why the Walmart-Michelle Obama Plan for Healthy Eating is Doomed

Last Updated Jan 26, 2011 3:03 PM EST

Walmart (WMT) and Michelle Obama's joint announcement today that the retailing giant will start selling healthier food is further evidence that the First Lady's efforts to solve America's looming obesity problem, while probably noble and well-intentioned, aren't going to accomplish much.

That's because Walmart's two-pronged pledge -- 1) to reduce sodium, trans fat and sugar in its Great Value brand of packaged foods and 2) to somehow reduce the prices of fruits and vegetables -- is a superficial solution to a deep-rooted problem.

Sam Kass, the White House chef and Michelle Obama's nutrition advisor, may already know this. In today's New York Times, he pondered whether joining hands with Walmart would have any meaningful "impact":
We're aligning ourselves with people who are stepping up as leaders to take this country to a healthier place...The only question that we have is do we think this is a significant step in that direction, and do we think there is a method in place to track progress, and do we think this will have the impact we are pushing for.
The answer is no. Reformulating processed foods to make them a bit healthier is a smart move for Walmart because the effort, if marketed correctly, is likely to spur additional sales. But it's not going to do much to further Obama's goals of reversing obesity trends.

Repackaging an old problem
The solution to America's obesity problems doesn't involve giving people a reason to feel better about eating more processed food. Perhaps having greater availability of low, low priced packaged food is the reason that, according to this study, having a Walmart Supercenter come to town can make you fat.

Walmart also isn't doing anything new here. The food industry is already committed to taking some "bad stuff" out of packaged food. The major companies have already removed most of the trans fat from their product. Many of them have set targets for reducing sodium, and collectively they've promised to take out 1.5 trillion from their products calories by 2015 (also a Michelle Obama-backed pledge).

So having Walmart breathe down their necks on this front isn't likely to accomplish much.

The idea of making fruit and vegetables more affordable could actually make a dent in the obesity problem by helping Americans to eat healthier. Too bad neither Walmart nor Obama seem to want to address the root causes of why whole foods like fruit and vegetables are often more expensive than comparatively unhealthy, processed foods.

How to make fresh, healthy food cheaper
That would require talking about our outdated system of farm subsidies, which rewards the growers of the commodity crops that go into processed foods and ignores the farmers that grow carrots, apples and broccoli. The idea that this system is badly misaligned with public health goals is becoming more and more mainstream, and anyone that wants credibility in the obesity battle should be taking this on.

Walmart hasn't offered many details on how it's going to lower fruit and vegetable prices, other than to say that price reductions will flow from improvements to its supply chain, not by leaning on its already squeezed suppliers. But it's safe to say that redirecting some of the $18 billion soybean, corn and wheat farmers pocket each year to a more diverse selection of fruit and vegetable crops would do a lot more for the price of a salad at Walmart than consolidating warehouses and tinkering with new supply-chain software.

Obama seems to think it's a good idea to keep wrapping her well-toned arms around the food industry, but she risks turning herself into a marketing tool. How many other food companies would love to have her presiding over one of their press conferences? Yup, all of them.

I don't mean to suggest that Obama's obesity crusade will be completely ineffective. She's elevated the issue to unprecedented heights and proposed real solutions for getting more grocery stores in areas classified as "food deserts." But if obesity is more than just a pet project to keep her busy while her husband rules the world, she's going to have to start scratching beneath the surface.

Image from USDAgov
Related:
  • Melanie Warner

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