by Marion Nestle
Jan 20 2011

What are we to think about Walmart’s healthy food initiatives?

In a press conference attended by Michelle Obama, Walmart today said it will do five things:

  • Work with processed food suppliers to reduce sodium, sugars, and trans fat in hundreds of foods by 2015
  • Develop its own front-of-package seal to identify healthier products
  • Make healthier processed foods more affordable
  • Put a new, different kind of Walmart store in low-income “food deserts”
  • Increase charitable support for nutrition programs

I’ve been on the phone all day with interviewers, most of them totally focused on the first two.  Walmart has established its own nutrition criteria for judging its own products.  These seem generous and not particularly challenging, and this is just what Pepsi, Kraft, and other companies have been doing.  These criteria are only slightly better.

The idea that Walmart is going to do its own front-of-package label to identify those products is particularly annoying.  They are doing this just when the Institute of Medicine and FDA are trying to establish research-based criteria for front-of-package labels.  So here is one more company trying to preempt FDA regulations.

When I asked Walmart representatives about this, they told me that the FDA moves slowly and the public needs this information now.  Sorry.  I don’t buy that.

The next two initiatives are much more interesting and have much greater potential to do some good.  Walmart says it will price better-for-you processed foods lower than the regular versions and will develop its own supply chain as a means to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables.  This sounds good, but what about the downside?  Will this hurt small farmers?   Walmart didn’t provide many details and we will have to see how this one plays out.

And then there is the one about putting smaller Walmart stores into inner cities in order to solve the problem of “food deserts.”  This also sounds good—and it’s about time groceries moved into inner cities—but is this just a ploy to get Walmart stores into places where they haven’t been wanted?  Will the new stores drive mom-and-pop stores out of business?  Here too, Walmart is short on details.

None of the reporters seems to be connecting these initiatives with Walmart’s dismal history of low wages and poor working conditions.  Will these change for the better?

Walmart is not a social service agency.  It is a business and a hugely successful one.  It outsells the largest grocery chains in America by a factor of two.   Today’s New York Times says that 16% of U.S. sales of Kraft products are at Walmart stores.  PepsiCo admits to 10%.   These are huge numbers.

Walmart can get whatever it wants from suppliers—and even get Mrs. Obama to endorse its actions.  That’s power.

Whether these initiatives will do anything for health remains to be seen.  They will certainly put pressure on other suppliers and stores to tweak their products. I don’t think that’s good enough.

I’ll say it again: a better-for-you processed food is not necessarily a good choice.

That’s why I think the most important of these initiatives is the one to reduce the price of fruits and vegetables.  That could make a real difference.

  • Pete

    I knew you must have been hard at work on this one today!

    I agree, overall bad except for the fact that Wal-Mart can have a significant influence on the cost of fruits and veggies.

  • Great analysis on these points. Thanks for bringing some of the issues to light. When Wal-Mart does something considered *good* it’s hard to think there could be any downside, but there are always 2 sides to the coin!

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  • I’m torn about it. Like you I think getting some fresh foods to inner city food deserts is a good move. I wonder if there’s a measurable advantage to that huge chunk of people who rely (too much) on processed foods having access to products with less salt, no transfats, and less sugar in the meantime. Living out in middle America and seeing the buggies full of boxes and giant bottles of Mountain Dew I can’t see these people changing their eating habits.

    I find it interesting that companies like Walmart and McDonald’s, scourge of the health foodies, are devoting so much $$ and effort to polishing their images. Of course, the veneer of goodness is mighty thin.

  • If Walmart wants to put a smaller store in inner cities in order to solve the “food desert”, why don’t they simply work with the Local grocers and offer them the ability to buy nutritious food at competitive contract prices that way Walmart gets a good name and the Mom and Pap store thrive while being able to sustain a healthier community.

  • Emily

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. I deeply mistrust Walmart, and I especially value your point about the potential harm to small farms. I agree that it’s crucial to make produce more affordable, but, as with organics, I just don’t believe that Walmart’s come up with the answer.

  • Lauren

    Marion, I heard your interview on NPR, I must say THANK YOU for standing up to big business and raising the the often overlooked facts about our food supply systems and the politics that drive our markets. If we want our population to be healthy we most certainly need to up the fresh “real” food intake. To help move that initiative we should require our politicians to evaluate the long broken system of farm subsidies and redirect funding so that local small farms can support a local market, thus reducing the need to transport food across the country and increasing the variety of foods grown and eaten.

  • Cathy Richards

    Industry has a huge role in responsible food production and sales.

    This is, however noble an initiative it sounds like, a great big magic trick, deflecting attention from the sneaky hands with smoke and mirrors.

    Marion, you are right on, and your comments are similar to Yale’s Rudd Center’s great discussion on food industry self-regulation (found here: )

    Here is a little excerpt from it:

    “…The tobacco industry’s self-regulatory tactics illustrate the central danger of self-regulation: an industry can use programs and approaches that appear credible and are framed as in the public’s interest but prevent legislation or regulation and damage public health. Some food industry behaviors are strikingly similar to those of the tobacco industry; it is essential that tobacco’s history with self-regulation not be repeated.”

    “…As with the tobacco and alcohol industries, food industry self-regulation appears to be motivated more by external threats: negative public attitudes, government action that restricts key business practices, and litigation. Where industry and public health objectives conflict, an industry has incentives to create a public image of concern and to promise change, but then to create weak standards with lax enforcement. The cynical practices of the tobacco industry, and to a lesser extent the alcohol industry, have shown how under the guise of self-regulation, public health problems can be increased (e.g., young people being encouraged to smoke more rather than less) and government action can be warded off.”

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  • Joseph Docu

    At least some kudos are due to Wallyworld for taking steps in the right direction.

    Now will anyone be teaching adults and kids how to cook food from ingredients found in these new wallyworld stores?

    Education has to be part of the solution, too. I have a fridge with real food in it and I could really use a few fast-meal ideas right about now. Darn we really need to value home cooks in our society. My mom was (and remains) a god!

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  • Lisa

    I heard a brief bit of an interview with you (Marion Nestle) on NPR this evening and felt the need to reach out an thank you for your efforts in speaking out against the food industry and helping to educate America on nutrition.

    At the age of 39 I have, by a series of coincidences, discovered the cause of my asthma from which I have suffered since a child. For years, I have resisted going on any additional asthma medications other than a quick-relief inhaler. I have fought my doctor’s instincts to medicate additionally and continued to search for the underlying cause. Sure enough, the root of my constant respiratory distress was food based. I have gone from using albuterol every four hours, every day since I was 16 years old, to using it a handful of times since November. With a strict diet free of gluten and more surprisingly, antibiotic-fed meats, I am nearly asthma free. Avoiding any meat that was given antibiotics made the most profound change in my symptoms. And while I don’t want to sound dramatic, I will say that this has been a life changing discovery. Every time I’m in line at the supermarket or in a waiting room at my doctor’s office, I feel the need to share my experience with every parent that has a cart full of processed foods and/or an asthmatic child. The myriad of changes in my overall health and well being is really too long to a list to get into. But I will briefly state that other issues with sleep, chest pain and anxiety have also been resolved – completely gone.

    With every albuterol-free breath of fresh air I am grateful that we are able to afford organic fruits and vegetables when we are unable to grow our own and saddened to think of the many families who walk into a grocery store and must make the decision to buy foods that will only damage their health in years to come, simply because they are not able to afford what is a healthier option. What a shame that so many children are eating fast-foods weekly, if not daily because parents are working more than one job to stay afloat – time simply doesn’t allow for a nutritious meal at least once a day. Or maybe the parent just doesn’t know just how little nutritional value those foods have.

    The general health of the people in our country is in a dire state partially due to the food industry. And while the industry is not fully repsonsible, educating our children about it’s affects on our health is surely a good start in helping to make changes for the better…but you already know that! So I’ll just thank you, sincerely, for your efforts.

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  • Jami Gaither

    I heard you today on NPR and I LOVED what you shared!
    When Robert asked what one thing could be done – and you actually gave him two – hear, hear! – I was thrilled with your answers. I am so hopeful that people heard your suggestions and we will start to/continue to work on both the upcoming Farm Bill and Campaign Financing to make strides toward making this a better country. The corporate systems have for TOO LONG controlled how we eat and even how we think about eating, let alone all the other aspects of our country under corporate control. I joke with my husband that we live in the Corporate States of America. I think many changes are happening, small but changes that are gaining momentum. You are definitely on the right track so keep talking!
    Just heard Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA this past weekend and his comments focused in part on how our hunger/food issues are not production issues but distribution issues so I am hopeful that Walmart’s changes can help along those lines. But his larger focus was on making changes to the Farm Bill to promote small, local farm initiatives. One of the biggest issues is how the seed giants continue to run farmers into debt and hold them hostage in no-win situations. I am so glad here in Indy to see a big growth in our local farmers and local food availability and I hope the next Farm Bill will encourage more of this kind of growth.
    With people like you helping open eyes, we’re making progress.
    I’m sure you may be hit with some negative comments too but hope the positive support from people like me outweighs it. And even if it doesn’t, that it strengthens you to keep pounding your drum.
    Thanks a million!

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  • Just another marketing hit. People will remember that Walmart cares about consumers because it will reduce prices. Healthy choices? What healthy choices?

  • In the UK, Walmart own the supermarket chain Asda, who use the traffic light colour-coded front-of-package labelling scheme recommended as best for consumers by an independent study commissioned by the (now considerably weaker) Food Standards Agency. While public health campaigners many not like all of what the big grocery chains do, we do recognise that Asda are doing a good job on this.

    So if Walmart is really concerned with helping consumers make healthier choices, why don’t they use the same tried and tested labelling scheme as they already do in the UK?

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  • This is a terrific discussion. I just posted a story on my blog about the program Eat Well/Play Hard, which is funded by the NYS DOH and is pushing ritz crackers and cheerios as a “healthy snack”.

    I loved hearing you say and repeat that “better-for-you processed food” is still processed food. Your work is really making a difference. Thank you. I am so sorry that I missed all this on NPR.


  • Suzanne

    @ Kim Foster:

    Hear Marion Nestle streaming on KPBS/NPR discussing Walmart here:

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  • Genie

    Reduce the price of fruits and veggies? Hmmm. What does that do to the farmers? Can local farmers compete with slave wages in foreign countries? Is the problem that veggies are more expensive than Twinkies or that Twinkies are too cheap?

    Marion, is promoting cheap imported veggies sustainable and healthy?

  • Valerie

    I just happened to be in the car and heard your NPR interview yesterday. Thanks for your voice of sanity. I love your messaging around “better-for-you” foods. Food corporations have really got Americans confused with their labelling tactics.

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  • I just wanted to write a quick note to let you know how much I enjoyed every minute of your NPR interview! I could not agree more with your talking points. Thanks so much for being a voice of professionalism and clarity in this rather complicated world of food in which we live! Well done!

  • Sheila

    While I am glad to see some movement on improving the content of processed food, your point is very well taken with me: just because it has been slightly improved does not necessarily make it GOOD choice to eat. Somehow I am skeptical that people addicted to processed food sludge by the gallon and bucket will suddenly trade it all for modest portions of fresh salmon, spinach and carrots that might be a few cents less expensive. I think this initiative misses the crucial point of getting people to choose fresh food entirely instead of proccessed food sludge.

  • Mas

    Lost in the talk was Walmart’s plan to provide cheaper fruits and vegetables. I fear it will be on the backs of small farmers like myself and my neighbors.