Wal-Mart’s Nutrition Initiative: Smoke ‘n Mirrors or Real Change?

140 Million people shop at Wal-mart every week. It is the largest grocery chain in the US, with almost 30% of sales, according to some sources. 10% of PepsiCo’s products are sold at Wal-Mart, and 16% of Kraft’s.

That’s why when Wal-Mart announces a new Nutrition Initiative everybody listens. And that’s why they can get the First Lady onstage at their press event.

So what exactly did Wal-Mart announce yesterday in Washington DC? Here is the formal press release. And to sum it up, here are the five main points:

  1. Wal-Mart will be reformulating thousands of everyday packaged food items by 2015, reducing sodium, sugar, and trans-fat.
  2. Making healthier choices more affordable – especially fresh produce.
  3. Developing strong criteria for a simple front-of-package seal.
  4. Providing solutions to address food deserts by building stores in urban areas.
  5. Increasing charitable support for nutrition programs.

“No family should have to choose between food that is healthier for them and food they can afford,” said Bill Simon, president and CEO of Walmart U.S

We agree. But will Wal-Mart’s initiative really help families make smarter choices?

What you need to know:

Let’s analyze each of Wal-mart’s points from the press conference:

1. Product reformulation – this is a good first step. We definitely need less sugar, sodium, and definitely no trans-fats in our diet. But a crappy processed product with less sugar will still be a crappy processed product.

What Wal-Mart should do: kill off the worst 10% of the products it sells, and instead introduce totally new products with short, comprehendable ingredient lists and truly high nutrition. For example, they can start by adding an aisle of bulk items such as beans and grains, and then teach consumers how to prepare these foods by doing in-store demos.

2. Affordable produce – According to Wal-Mart’s press kit, they will be saving consumers $1 billion annually by eliminating inefficiencies and “unnecessary costs” in the produce supply chain. Excellent.

Int the Q&A, Wal-Mart was asked how is this going to play into the company’s effort to source more produce locally – if they’re trying to put more money in the local economy and driving down prices, how is that going to work?

Walmart’s VP of sustainability, Andrea Thomas’ Answer: “There’s a lot of things through the supply chain that add costs. If you have fruits and vegetables traveling long distances that actually adds costs. With local farmers, we can supply [directly] great products to our stores, the quality is great and they don’t have to travel as far so we save money.”

But Wal-mart is already squeezing its suppliers t the max, and many local farmers that want to work with Wal-Mart are required to sign exclusive agreements. When the giant then asks for further reductions in price, some will go out of business.

What Wal-Mart should do: use its might to help change the upcoming farm bill. Subsidies for Corn and Soy should be shifted to fresh produce. That way, there is a true economic incentive to move to fresh produce, for all parties involved.

3. Front of Package Seal – Oh no. Last time the industry tired to tell consumers what’s healthy using front of pack labels, we got Froot Loops as a “Smart Choice”. Not again.

What Wal-Mart should do: the grocery behemoth should set an example and be the first to accept the IOM’s recommendations for front of pack labeling. But those only emphasize reasons not to buy a food (salt and bad fats), so chances are slim this info will be made easily available on front of pack.

4. More stores in food deserts: this is a tricky issue. On one hand, some urban areas don’t have decent food options for miles. On the other hand, studies have shown that whenever Wal-Mart opens a new store, the surrounding area becomes more obese. So how will this new move help?

Incidentally, Wal-Mart is pushing hard to get into the NYC area, so far without success. Will anything change now?

5. Charity – Please understand that this is more of a PR move than anything of substance. The few millions of dollars spent on these programs are a tiny sliver of Wal-Mart’s revenues. But each time another $10,000 is spent in a local community for some program, the company gets tons of great local press. Let’s just call this additional marketing spend, nothing more. This is the first thing you learn to do in corporate marketing 101 class.

What Wal-Mart should do: Wal-Mart should spend the money on improving wages and terms for its own employees, many who could use the higher salaries to be able to afford the very fresh produce Wal-Mart plans to offer at low prices.

BOTTOM LINE: The modern food industry is structured in a way that causes us to be sick and fat. People buy cheap and convenient food, not healthy food. As long as cheap food continues to be unhealthy, we’ll be seeing more of the same. Wal-Mart is a part of the modern food industry.

BUT. if it puts all its weight behind some REALLY IMPACTFUL initiatives, such as changes to the farm bill, or the removal of all soft drinks from its stores, that could have much more effect than anything that was announced by the company this week.

What to do at the supermarket:

If you buy your groceries at Wal-Mart, you can still shop smart by avoiding certain aisles, such as soft drinks and snacks. Spend the saved money on unprocessed foods such as produce, whole grains, fresh cuts of meat, and low fat dairy.

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  • http://foodtrainers.blogspot.com Lauren Slayton

    I have to say, when I saw the headlines for Walmart’s changes, my first thought was where’s the catch. It’s popular to feign healthfulness. Some of this seems fine and I may be a food snob but Walmart will never be a place I associate with wholesome, clean food choices.

  • John Lippmann

    If you buy your groceries at Wal-Mart, you can still shop smart by avoiding certain aisles, such as soft drinks and snacks. Spend the saved money on unprocessed foods such as produce, whole grains, fresh cuts of meat, and low fat dairy.

    There are places like Trader Joes where you can get discounted prices on organic versions of each of these…Also what about shopping at your local coop or market or from a farmer. Regardless of the hype Wal-mart is all about profits received by buying items from vendors who generally do not heave health and safety as a first principle.

  • http://www.FeedingTheKids.com Ellie Taylor

    I agree with you totally. This is a “wait and see” deal. Just went through Wal-Mart again to look for products to show parents – and I was again discouraged and sad when I only 1 in 10 products was nutrient-dense.. They do have a few whole, healthy foods here and there. But the bulk of their inventory is highly processed junk food (I call them fake foods). They have monumental work ahead to live up to their lofty goals. But in the meantime, they sure have scored a major marketing victory having so many big guns at their press release. And, as a local food advocate, I worry about this giant corporation controlling so much of my food supply. THAT really SCARES ME.

  • http://www.thefrugaldietitian.com Nancy-The Frugal Dietitian

    Let’s start with the SNAP program (food stamps) for changes. Make it more like WIC where what you can buy is more specific and most food deserts will disappear. I guess I am not as cynical because people make their own choices. What the consumer buys is what stores will carry no matter where it is located. Americans need to stop blaming “others”, meaning businesses and gov’t, and look at themselves and their own choices.

  • http://www.livingitupcornfree.com kc

    @Nancy-The Frugal Dietitian I’m sick to death of hearing plans to overhaul the SNAP program to limit choices. First of all, who gets to decide what foods will be allowed? Will we be following the USDA’s ridiculous food pyramid? Will we be making the misguided low fat craze mandatory for all people on SNAP? Are you proposing cutting out soft drinks? If so, don’t forget the GMO-laden cereals (fortified with essential vitamins and minerals!) which the government thinks should be the base of our pyramid and the HFCS rich nonfat yogurt and reduced fat pasteurized and homogenized vitamin D milk. If you really want to talk about boosting the health of people on food stamps, baby formulas wouldn’t be allowed. Most of them are just corn syrup and soy derivatives and corny vitamins.

    Here are some facts for you: Low fat and nonfat dairy selections contain more sugar and GMO corn additives than their full fat counterparts. The only dairy product in my local grocery store that is acceptable for the corn allergic is Daisy full fat sour cream and Kerrygold butter and the rare (all but disappeared from the shelves thanks to the low fat craze!) full fat plain yogurt. The government would prefer that I buy low fat yogurt full of HFCS because they think fat is more evil than corn syrup. That would be disastrous for my family of corn and soy allergic individuals. Would we go completely without dairy to suit you?

    Enriched wheat: I’m sure you believe that enriched whole grain breads are the answer to the obesity problem in America. How about this? “Enrichment” always means adding corn derivatives along with the corny vitamins. There isn’t a single wheat product in my store that is corn-free. I must be allowed to buy unenriched wheat flour in order to make my own corn-free wheat products. We don’t eat a lot of grains but when we do I must be allowed to vet each and every ingredient for corn contamination, not be limited to whatever prepared cereal crap you deem healthy using conventional food pyramid wisdom.

    Salt: Iodized salt contains corn. I only buy the more expensive sea salt and don’t eat any processed foods containing all the sodium rich food additives or added vitamins and minerals (they always contain corn). Will I be forced to buy iodized salt because the government doesn’t trust me to regulate the amount of iodine in my children’s diet without it? Would you have me do without salt because there is no corn-free version allowed according to your proposed SNAP overhaul?

    Sugar: I buy very little sugar and no sugary processed foods, but I like to bake occasional treats. Would sugar be limited to only the government sanctioned version of it, because that would mean corn syrup. We all know that the U.S. government would be happier if I was doing my part to support this corn and soy driven economy. Will SNAP allow only certain sweets made with corn syrup or will I be allowed to buy my organic sugar to bake my own?

    Produce: I guess you think more fresh produce is beneficial to health so I should be required to buy fresh produce instead of frozen or canned. How about this? frozen bell peppers are the only safe ones in my store because the “fresh” ones are coated with corn wax. The same goes for berries and fruit: The fresh fruit in my stores contains corn in the form of corn wax or citric acid so I only buy frozen fruit from the store. I prefer to buy local fruit in season and preserve my own, but if I have to buy fruit, frozen is the only option.

    I am dependent on SNAP benefits but I buy only whole foods -absolutely no processed foods (baby carrots are processed food) – but you can see how I would be hampered by your proposed changes. I’m sure there are tons of people using SNAP to buy frozen pizzas and soft drinks, but that’s true of the entire population. When I go to the store, I am the only one in the store without a bunch of brightly colored boxes, bags and cans in my cart. Also, I’ve never seen another person at the farmers market paying with food stamps and I’m there every Saturday. Stop picking on the most desperate of the population and focus your energy on trying to change school lunches into actual food or form a group to educate the masses to avoid buying anything advertised on television.

  • InaAK47

    Take a chill-pill, KC.

    Or oh wait, would that have corn in it too?

  • http://www.livingitupcornfree.com kc

    @InaAK47 If it was made in the U.S., it most certainly would! 8^)

  • http://www.growingraw.com GrowingRaw

    I think the best idea from this article was to have demonstrations in the Walmart stores showing people how to cook healthy food from healthy ingredients. Mini-cooking classes even…