by Marion Nestle
Feb 22 2011

Why the White House is soft on Walmart: afterthoughts

Not everyone liked Sam Kass’s speech as much as I did (see previous post) and I’ve been asked to expand on the idea that we need to pressure the White House to do more.  Here’s how I see the situation.

We live in an era when corporations run government.  You don’t believe this?  Take a look at the appalling events in Wisconsin.  Consider the implications of last year’s Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, allowing corporations virtually unlimited funding of congressional election campaigns.

Election campaign funding is the root source of corruption in American government.   If corporations were not allowed to fund election campaigns, we might be able to elect legislators who are more interested in public health than corporate health.

The First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign aims to reduce childhood obesity.  This, in itself, is fundamentally anti-corporate.  Why?  Because fixing obesity means eating less and eating better, and both are very, very bad for business.  And they are especially bad for the corporations that make highly profitable junk foods—snacks, sodas, and the like—and for retailers who display these products on supermarket shelves.

From the perspective of the White House, the food business is not going away.  If the Obama administration is not going to be perceived as anti-business, it has to work with corporations.  But what can food corporations really do to help kids eat more healthfully?

I worried about this question when I returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos a few years ago.  There, I met high-level executives of food corporations and realized that I needed a clear, unambiguous agenda for them.  But because I think people would be healthier if they ate mostly unprocessed foods, and I’m not much impressed by small nutritional tweakings of junk foods, I had a hard time thinking of positive things they could do.

The only agenda items I could think of were negatives: stop marketing junk food, stop marketing to kids,  stop marketing junk food as health food, stop attacking critics, etc.  Negatives won’t sell.

I think Mrs. Obama’s choice of childhood obesity as her First Lady’s Cause was a courageous decision.   In the current corporate context, the accomplishments listed by Mr. Kass add up to something meaningful.  The First Lady is doing what she can.  And let’s face it: nobody else in that position ever has.  Never have issues of food and nutrition been made so legitimate.  For that alone, she deserves thanks.

If the Obamas think they have to work with business, they have to work with Walmart—it’s the 800-pound food gorilla.  In theory, if Walmart tweaks food products, reduces the price of healthier food options, sources lower cost fruits and vegetables, and moves stores into inner cities, the net result will be healthier choices for Walmart customers.  In practice, we have to wait and see.

The White House must think these potential gains are worth the cost of the nose-holding they have to do about Walmart’s labor and business practices.  Nose-holding is the price of getting things done at that level.

I am in the privileged position of not having to make those kinds of compromises (thank you, NYU).

It is not an accident that Mr. Kass’s riff began with “parents told us.”  The First Lady cannot budge without substantial popular support and pressure.  If we think she is in a position to do any good at all for the movement to reverse childhood obesity and improve the food system, we have to let her know what we’d like her to try to do—loudly and repeatedly.

So maybe the First Lady’s—and Sam Kass’s—next speech will begin: “Everyone who cares about how our food is produced and consumed told us….”

Maybe I’m overly optimistic (it’s my nature), but I still see Mrs. Obama’s efforts as an opportunity.  We ought to be using it to push for what we think is right.

  • Cathy Richards

    The big shift here is, to grossly generalize, is that instead of bigwigs spouting off about disliking broccoli, they’re now spouting off about growing it, liking it, eating it.

    That’s a pretty fundamental shift in how D.C. thinks about food, and awareness/precontemplation/contemplation/preparation is a really significant step along the continuum of the stages of change.

    (copied and pasted my comment from your blog about Kass’s speech, because it works for your wonderful cautious optimism here as well 🙂 )

  • After doing much research (including reading your books and watching your presentations), I concluded that waiting and hoping for the government to assist is fruitless.

    I recommend anyone who is interested in living a healthier lifestyle to do it without any meaningful assistance from Uncle Sam.

    Fortunately, it is not difficult. As Michael Pollan states: “You can leave the Western diet without leaving civilization”. I concur.

    The first thing to do … Pack it! Lunch that is. Do not wait for school lunches to get better.

    I thank Marion Nestle and hundreds of other dedicated folks for providing a wonderful education in this area.

    Ken Leebow

    P.S. If you’d like my resources, they are freely available at the above site.

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  • Subvert

    I call shenanigans on the whole PR event, all leading up to Wal-Mart’s announcement of its worthless actions. All this news and Wal-Mart’s actions will do nothing to fix underlying systemic problems.

    I say get the Wal-Mart’s of the world out of government, get Mrs Obama to tell her husband to grow a pair, and then maybe we’ll talk change. Until then, or until I see people waking up to reality, I unfortunately can’t be too hopeful.

  • Food Politics or Cringe Politics?

    Wal-Mart needs to open 10,000 new stores to keep growing; the anti-obesity campaign is building momentum and so Wal-Mart offers something it would have to start offering at some point anyway, with the added bonus of being able to open its smaller stores with a Presidential seal of approval. Who would be able to stand in their way now?

    A resounding win-win for the Walton’s: well done Mike Duke.

    Dancing to the devils tune may sometimes be necessary, but what will be the unintended consequences? More stores controlled by one supply chain whose primary focus is price competition. What did Jim Hightower warn against in the 1970s? Be careful of the effects of allowing food supply to be controlled by only few operators at the expense of the producers, the family farmers. What do we crave now? Family run farms.

    Someone needs to pin WalMart down to an ethical contract on this one, something they can’t renege on when sales growth drops. With every new store they open in disadvantaged areas, they should be made to measure BMI and basic health outcomes within their catchments before and after their arrival. (Any Ph.D candidates want to make a name for themselves, a before and after Wal-Mart natural experiment study around food deserts?)

    Its easy to bend to corporate pressure, but once big food businesses are free to do what they want, they nearly always abuse their privilege. That’s why we are where we are and that is why we have to live with such bad deals.

  • Daniel

    One place to comment is the Facebook page:

    Also, here’s the White House contact form:

  • I just found your blog and I’m intrigued by this discussion. I see that dealing with Wal-Mart is a necessary evil but a very important one. And we can’t just leave out that food costs drive obesity. I live in Oregon which has been named both the Heaviest and the Poorest state in recent years. There’s a reason that they go hand in hand.

  • Anthro

    I agree that the FLOTUS is doing what she can and the commenters should realize that the very good points they make are simply not within her power. Pressure needs to be put on those who DO have that power.

    May I suggest Russ Feingold’s new organization:

    RF wants to get the money out of campaigning–which seems to me like a good start toward real change.

  • Dottie Sachs

    First thank you for this article. As the Advocacy Director of a non-profit agency located in Philadelphia I relate to this question on several levels.
    Do I personally approve of all of WalMart’s policies? No, do I give thanks that they have stepped forward with donations of good quality (not Junk) food for our food cupboard? You bet I do.
    Do I appreciate that the First Lady has taken bold steps to educate people about necessary changes, that have to be made in nutrition and physical activity if American children are going to be healthier and more competitive the international scene. I think she has
    addressed problems that only a small minority of Americans have even thought about, so yes I’m a definite fan.
    As to the statement that the First Lady have a discussion with her husband about adding to his anatomy, I sincerely doubt that any of us would want his job, whether or not our anatomy includes the aforementioned.

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  • Vicki Copeland

    To Ken Leebow – yes, people with the monetary means and the enlightenment to be reading this post on this website will pack their lunches and make responsible choices when it comes to food. The problem that Mrs. Obama is trying to address is obesity amongst lower income Americans. Those school lunches are FREE and people that shop at Wal Mart for their food do so because it’s cheap. Making the choice to buy healthy food for your children and pack them a lunch is not something lower income families will make the choice to do when the school is offering their child a completely free meal – both breakfast and lunch – and the parent doesn’t have to take the time to make sure their pantry is stocked with lunch items or take the time to pack that lunch for their kids.

  • Vicki,

    I certainly understand what you are saying. And, it is a dilemma. Nuff said.

    Ken Leebow

  • Subvert

    @ Dottie – True, I sure as heck wouldn’t want his job… I mean to be a strung up puppet hanging there, dancing and singing the tune of the day to your oligarchs in the box seats while dodging tomatoes and turning a blind eye to your supposed constituency.

  • Joy


    I was so dubious (and still am) about Wal Mart’s announcement and their ties with the Obama administration. However, like you, I agree that Mrs. Obama has taken on a tremendous giant, and I too applaud her for it. Thank you, thank you for your well reasoned article (as always!).

  • One major step would be mandated truth in food packaging. While food packages deliberately mislead consumers, no real choice or education is possible.

    I have designed a simple but revolutionary draft alternative.

  • sima

    targeting walmart and other groceries is so important but it has to be supported by legislation on the food industry by itself…after all the groceries sell the food industry products.
    the work should be done at earlier stages in the food production and manufacturing, then completed by the groceries cooporation and government persuasion..
    Politics are needed in every environment (schools, community, medical institutions, workplaces…

  • Alexandra

    For me the Walmart relationship with Mrs Obama is a PR thing. Their Public Relations in the past (or still) has been horrible – they haven’t they pay the absolute minimum without providing health care, they undersell all local businesses until they go out of business. I haven’t haven’t even entered a Walmart for these reasons in years.
    Because it is Walmart, I am questioning how organic their food might be. There seems to be a lot of tomfoolery going on in that area. I would not trust Walmart. Why would they be so nice all of a sudden. I bet they think the Obama effort will run its course pretty quickly. Or they know it will look so bad if she fails, so maybe they will get a little leeway.

  • Barb

    Thanks for this commentary Marion. I agree that Michelle Obama should be applauded for taking this on as an issue. And Wal-Mart is not going anywhere — if we can educate people to demand healthy products from Wal-Mart then they will produce. But most people buy on price, so let’s lobby the government to subsidize producers of (whole) vegetables and fruits instead of producers of corn, wheat, and soy.

    Individual-level solutions, like “pack a lunch for your kids,” will never resolve the structural-level roots of the problem. Our government subsidizes junk food, when you get right down to it. That’s why it’s cheap, and the major corporations, including pharmaceutical companies, all profit from it.

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