Currently browsing posts about: Food-deserts

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.

Feb 10 2010

Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity: Applause!

I had best comment on this before anyone asks.   First Lady Michelle Obama wants to do something about childhood obesity and has gone into action.  She announced her “Let’s Move” initiatives accompanied by much fanfare.  Check out:

This is big news.  I see much to admire here.  The campaign focuses on kids.  It is sensitive to political realities (it’s called the uncontroversial “Let’s Move,” not the inflammatory “Let’s Eat Less” or “Let’s Eat Better”).  It’s brought a large number of groups on board (the New York Times account emphasizes this point).  It aims to do something useful about school food and food “deserts” (areas without grocery stores).  And it derives directly and explicitly from the White House garden.

I wasn’t able to watch the press conference but I hear that Will Allen was an invited speaker.  Allen is the charismatic and highly effective head of Growing Power, which runs urban farms in Milwaukee and Chicago.  I’m told he said:

  • It’s a social justice issue.
  • Every child in this country should have access to good food.
  • We have to grow farmers.

Yes!

Before the announcement, Marian Burros wrote in Politico.com about the barriers this effort will face (I’m quoted in her article).   And the Los Angeles Times discussed the enormous and enormously successful lobbying effort undertaken by the soft drink industry against soda taxes.  It predicted that the First Lady would not mention soda taxes when she announced her obesity campaign.  Indeed, she did not.

But she did say:

The truth is our kids didn’t do this to themselves.  Our kids didn’t choose to make food products with tons of fat and sugar and supersize portions, and then to have those foods marketed to them wherever they turn.

So let’s call this campaign a good first step and give it a big round of applause.  I hoping everyone will give it a chance, help move it forward in every way possible, and keep fingers crossed that Mrs. Obama can pull it off.

Jul 14 2009

Food deserts: systematic analyses

Food deserts must be the hot new topic.  USDA researchers have produced a major analysis of “food deserts,” the term used to describe low-income areas with poor access to food.   According to the USDA, only about 4% of the U.S. population lives more than a mile from a supermarket but there isn’t enough research to say whether access is inadequate in areas of limited access.  Oh?  Maybe if the researchers had talked to people in that situation?

The report is full of statistics on poverty in the United States (check out the map of areas in the U.S. where 40% of the population lives on incomes below 200% of the poverty line).  A good part of the report focuses on use of food for community development.   A lot of the country could use some.  The USDA might consider adding some qualitative, interview-based research to its portfolio.

And the National Academies has a report out on the effects of food deserts on public health (scroll down to read it online for free).  The bottom line?  More research needed.

Well, yes, but why do I think this situation needs fixing much more than it needs further research?  How about asking people who live in food deserts what it might mean to them to have a supermarket within walking distance.  Or am I missing some key point here?

[Posted from Fairbanks]

August 6 update: thanks to the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy for producing a report on programs that have more or less successfully introduced healthier foods into small stores in the middle of food deserts.  The report gives guidelines on how to do this.

Nov 8 2008

Can the poor afford to eat healthfully?

USDA’s latest analysis says yes, but only if they make careful food choices, avoid convenience foods, and live in a low-cost area.  At the time of the study, a half gallon of whole milk, for example, cost a lot less in Pittsburgh ($1.45) than it did in Boston ($2.51) .

But can people in low-income areas even find food?  The Rudd Center at Yale has a new report out on how tough it is to find anything other than fast food in low-income areas -  food “deserts” as they have come to be known.

Sep 14 2008

USDA discusses food deserts

One of the lesser known (to me, anyway) provisions of this year’s farm bill was to ask the USDA to do a study of food deserts -  parts of inner cities and rural areas that do not have access to fresh foods.  The Economic Research Service, a section of the USDA that performs major public service, is holding a conference on food deserts on October 9 in Washington.  Its agenda looks terrific. Check it out!