by Marion Nestle
Mar 5 2013

Let’s Move! Celebrates its 3rd Birthday–At Walmart’s

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama did a national tour to celebrate the third anniversary of her Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.  

As explained in the White House press release, the tour was to focus on school lunches, physical activity, and getting businesses involved—“Healthy Families, Thriving Businesses.”

To that end, she visited a Walmart in Springfield, Missouri to congratulate the company on its pledge to open 300 stores in communities with limited access to affordable healthy foods, to reduce salt and sugars in its products, to make healthier food more affordable, and to put front-of-package logos on healthier foods.

As the press release explained (and as Walmart says in its own):

Walmart is one of many businesses across the country that is making healthy changes to support their customers, because they recognize that what’s good for their customer’s health is also good for their business. Following the tour, Mrs. Obama will deliver remarks about how supporting the health of American families is also good for business, and remind consumers that it’s up to them to continue demanding healthier options.

Did this mean that the new emphasis of Let’s Move! would be on personal responsibility?  Mrs. Obama explained further in the Wall Street Journal:

Take the example of Wal-Mart. In just the past two years, the company reports that it has cut the costs to its consumers of fruits and vegetables by $2.3 billion and reduced the amount of sugar in its products by 10%. Wal-Mart has also opened 86 new stores in underserved communities and launched a labeling program that helps customers spot healthy items on the shelf.

The best reported account of this visit is by Eddie Gehman Kohan at Obamafoodorama.  She points out that this particular Walmart is not located in an underserved community.  She also did the math and calculated that the savings in the cost of fruits and vegetables work out to 16 cents per week per customer.

At this point, I thought it was time for a field trip.

I was in Ithaca, NY over the weekend and checked out its Walmart to see what its Let’s Move!-inspired actions looked like on the ground.  I particularly wanted to see how its “Great for You” labeling program was working out.   This, you may recall, identifies healthy products with this logo:

Although the labeling program was announced a year ago, I had to search hard to find any examples.  Here are a couple in the produce section.









Only a few bins of produce were marked with those labels.  There’s a tiny one in the picture below in front of some clementines from Honduras, but none of the other foods in that section had labels.









I could not find another such label anywhere else in the store.

How else was this Walmart promoting healthier eating?  Its big in-store promotion that day was right along the produce section: a large display of Oreo Mega Stuf cookies (the ones with twice the filling and twice the calories of regular Oreos).  A man was handing out free samples and dollar-off coupons.  When I picked up a package to read the label he said “Don’t do that. Treat yourself.”

The Ithaca Walmart is a quarter of a mile from Wegmans, so I did some comparison shopping.  I was surprised to find that the prices were remarkably close—about the same or only slightly higher (explaining why the Walmart price advantage is only a couple of cents a day).

But the people who shopped in Wegmans looked more affluent and healthier than Walmart shoppers.

Although the prices are similar—and the fresh foods at Wegmans are of higher quality—that Walmart is much less crowded, sparsely staffed by poorly paid employees,  and somehow makes it more comfortable for very poor people to shop there.

My conclusions:

  • Walmart makes produce available at market prices to people who don’t feel comfortable going to Wegmans.  
  • Walmart promises to open stores in low-income areas where Wegmans will not.

On this basis, does Walmart deserve this high level of White House praise and attention?

I don’t get it. 

  • I don’t get it either. Check out Walmart’s “grocery list” ad from my local paper.

  • During the past year, I did hear Mrs. Obama provide one great quotable phrase related to food: “You wouldn’t think of watering a plant with soda.”

    As far as Walmart, the only food I purchase there is bird food. The Cardinals seem to approve.

    Ken Leebow

  • I went to that Ithaca Wegmans all through college, and it was paradise. Only just a a year or so ago did a Wegmans open near the town where I live now in Central Massachusetts, and I’m always amazed when people assume that their prices are higher. Wegmans prices are consistently lower than most of the supermarkets around here – by quite a large margin sometimes.

  • And also, my local Stop N Shop has had similar symbols on all of their produce and other healthy products (though some are questionable when it comes to processed foods) for a long time now, well before Let’s Move. It’s frustrating that Walmart can get praised for mediocrity.

  • Tara

    This whole deal seems like promotion for Walmart and nothing more. Big deal, they are starting to do what they should be doing. Walmart’s such a giant with power over food prices, they could use that power to truly make healthy foods affordable. However, their shelves will still be filled with foods packed with sugar, salt, and fat and offered at a much lower price than healthy fruits and vegetables. They could be doing so much more than slapping some labels on some overpriced produce.

  • I Wonder

    It would be interesting to survey people about why they go to Walmart instead of Wegmans. I wonder if the constant barrage of “Always Low Prices” marketing (since 1962! has had an impact.

    See this story: Competitors Accuse Walmart Of Providing Inaccurate Price Comparisons In Ads
    “…In response to the Walmart ads, Publix begun running ads declaring, “Walmart doesn’t always have the lowest price.” Meanwhile, Pick ‘n Save’s radio ads highlight that the consumer might be getting what they pay for when they buy less-expensive meat and fish at Walmart. One ad states: “If you’d rather feed your family good food made fresh instead of just cheap food, there’s no comparison to Pick ‘n Save…”

    I also wonder if you’re sure Wegman’s is unwilling to open in underserved areas.

    And I wonder how the prices compare to the farmers markets and food coops.

  • Cathy RD

    Oh Marion – you rabble rouser you! Actually checking to see if they were doing what they were saying? Such high expectations.

  • Jill

    I live in Missouri. I have lived in several towns small and larger throughout the state. I currently live in a university town with a more health conscious population. My parents live in the small town I grew up in. There are three walmarts in my university town. Every Walmart carries varying products based on where they are located. I cannot find some of the same healthier foods I buy in my city at my parent’s Walmart. I find it disheartening that people in my parent’s small town are not offered some of the same healthier options people in more affluent areas are. They stock their shelves based on what they believe will sell in the communities they are located in. In my city I can find natural cleaning products at the walmart in the more affluent area but not in my area where poorer people live.

    If they really cared about providing healthier foods they would give people the option to buy it everywhere not just based on what they think will sell. Plus, the produce is horrendous. I cannot figure out why they do not improve it because they are losing business due to it. Most people I know refuse to buy produce at walmart and opt for other grocery store chains.

  • Mayct

    A new walmart grocery store just opened in my neighborhood – it is definitely not a low-income neighborhood, although perhaps on an easy bus route for people coming from one. However, what struck me in your post was their commitment to putting new stores in communities without access to healthy food – this is certainly not a community with low access to healthy food – there are three other grocery stores on each of the other three corners of the intersection. A Big Y (similar to stop and shop, price chopper, etc), a Whole Foods, and a local kosher grocery store. I can’t imagine that prices are that different from the Big Y. This is certainly not a “food desert!”

  • Crider

    I’m rather poor and I’ll shop at any supermarket — I wouldn’t go to a Wally*World just because I”m poor. I wouldn’t go to them anyway! I think the reason you notice moor of the poor shopping at Walmart is because of the mindshare they’ve cultivated about low prices. Even to they don’t have the ‘lowest prices’ people think they do. And people on a budget want to at least believe they’re saving money.

  • Terrific article. You do great work. Thanks for going to investigate the WalMart story.

    I’ve written a number of times on my blogs that we need more than these voluntary industry programs to curb obesity. Your field
    trip shows that clearly.

    Rita R. Robison, Consumer Journalist

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  • Katy D

    I just visited a WalMart here in Ohio yesterday (I don’t regularly shop there, just stopped in to get some exercise roaming the aisles during my lunch break) and it had just been built, actually the grand opening was within the last week. I didn’t go through the food section, but I did notice that there is a McDonald’s in the store and the smell was noticeable from the clothing area.

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  • We need to read more articles like yours to expose just what’s going on..well done!

  • I feel like it’s a tough choice. Wal Mart does have reasonable prices on produce but it’s just completely lower quality. I’m a Wegmans girl through and through. I love their labels for vegan, vegetarian, etc, and it just seems better. I also think that most communities have access to healthy food in their grocery stores. Just depends on what they choose to buy in those stores.

  • Alex

    “Don’t do that. Treat yourself.” Love it, so telling of other issues.

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  • Michelle Obama’s efforts to educate the public to eat and live healthier deserve to be applauded. We cannot, unfortunately, rely upon the Walmarts of America, to be supportive of her efforts when profit is at risk. Unltimately, the consumer must take personal responsibilty for his food choices. If Mrs. Obama wishes to end childhood obesity within a generation the best place to start is in our schools.

  • Crunchy Con Mom

    I shop at WalMart because stuff is cheaper there. Diapers are $25/box instead of $33, clothes are dirt cheap etc
    Because we are good at time management and have good transportation, my family also goes to 2 “real” grocery stores where we prefer to buy produce. Which is sometimes cheaper than WalMart produce. But the couple cents difference on bananas and bell peppers can’t make up for dollars on diapers.

  • For the higher end grocery account I used to manage, we did a lot of price comparison shops and the savings at Walmart were always minimal. Perhaps if you only bought their crazy low priced items, you could save more – but who wants to live off of Double Stuffed Oreos?

  • Anthro

    I have a friend who always rolls her eyes when I say I shop at Whole Foods–and yes, I’ve heard the “whole paycheck” refrain. I always ask my friend in return how much she spends per month on food. When she tells me I tell her that is what I spend for TWO people.

    I only buy produce there and only when it meets my budget. I pick and choose and only buy things that are often at or near the price at a regular (though not discount) supermarket. I do NOT shop the middle aisles and only get WW bread in the bakery (and stock up and freeze when WW is the weekly special).

    I have tried WalMart produce, which is often VERY cheap, but so much of it has rotted in the fridge within two or three days, I have become disgusted with them. I did get some good tomatoes, but I’m not going to go there just for that. WalMart, in my area anyway (Midwest city), seems to be full of disabled people–who may be living only on disability payments and food stamps. I respect that they need to make their money stretch, but they are being misled by WalMart. I think there might be something to the idea that they feel a sense of belonging at WalMart–which is just really sad.

    I hate to judge Mrs. Obama and have applauded her efforts. She’s in a tough spot in some ways, but partnering with WalMart without verifying their claims is a mistake for her.

  • Yeah – treat yourself to a Oreo Mega Stuf cookies – they are “great for you” – how ridiculous – great article!!

  • I am really tired of hearing about Walmart and what “great” things they are doing. They are not a good company and never will be.

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