Walmart: the new leader in health food?

Grocery store freezers

A few days ago the corporate big box giant that is Walmart announced a new initiative to try and improve the health of the nation. Given that they pull in billions every year in sales, and have the majority of North America covered in concrete and everyday low prices, it seems such a move just might be the kick in the butt the population needs to change their diet, right?

Personally, I’m skeptical, and it seems I’m not the only one. Marion Nestle had some interesting points about the new program over at, and I feel better siding with her than Michelle Obama.

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.

– Marion Nestle,

Her points about the problems of companies self-labeling products that are “healthy”, pricing healthier foods at prices comparable to or cheaper than less nutritious food, and their determination to place smaller Walmart stores into areas that currently lack their presence are worth considering. A company as large as Walmart did not get there by keeping the greater good at the front of their minds. A company as large as Walmart continues to grow and expand based on their interest in one thing: the bottom line.

How does a concern for profits translate into an initiative to feed people better food? Some of that remains to be seen, but I suspect smaller farmers and companies who have been trying to do the same thing will be squeezed out of the market by the juggernaut. Those who have been offering healthier food, but on a smaller scale, will not be able to supply Walmart at a price or quantity to meet their demands. As well, given that Walmart is the largest grocer in America, what they decide is a fair price or a healthy product will be seen as the baseline, and this will force other grocers to step in line or watch their sales decline. Of course, the decline of small, local businesses due to the presence of Walmart is part of the reason why they have found opposition in some areas, which they affectionately call “food deserts”. Granted, some areas certainly do lack adequate sources of nutritious food, but is it really wise to let Walmart determine these areas?

Mrs. Obama’s husband, the president, back in 2007 when he was serving in the U.S. Senate, criticized Walmart for not paying its workers more. All was forgiven on Thursday.

– Tahman Bradley,

Even if the US government and the first lady are willing to forgive, I am not. Walmart still has a horrible record in regards to wages, benefits and the treatment of their employees. If they were so concerned about the health of their customers, why not pay a better wage so people can afford to pay for other things needed to live a healthy life? Why not provide sufficient benefits so medical concerns are no longer an issue? I think the answer to all of these questions is obvious: money.

So, forgive me if I don’t jump onboard with Michelle Obama and so many others in applauding the big guns in their apparent concern for the hearts and waistlines of their customers. Maybe I’m just too cynical for my own good, or perhaps I have Walmart pegged wrong. Either way, I’m going to keep buying my food from somewhere a little smaller, and I’ll use my own set of guidelines to decide whether or not it is healthy thank you very much.

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