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Healthy skepticism toward Wal-Mart’s healthy push

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | JANUARY 27, 2011 7:10 AM

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Walk through the mechanical swoosh of Wal-Mart doors and you’ll be greeted by aisles of gleaming fresh produce with newly lowered prices.

Healthy-shopping enthusiasts do not generally consider this bastion of deep-fried American nutrition a destination. But Michelle Obama has recently partnered with Wal-Mart in her campaign against childhood obesity, and the big-box store is boasting about a new push toward healthier groceries.

The intentions of a business are impossible for the public to know. Is Wal-Mart simply jumping on the ‘health food” bandwagon, or is it truly concerned about its customers’ waistlines? It is readily apparent, however, that the company — or at least its Coralville branch — is embarking on a quest to decrease access to empty calories.

But this initiative to reformulate packaged food, make fresh food more affordable, and create a logo for healthy choices is not the panacea for America’s dietary woes. Except for the price cuts on produce, it is the nutritional equivalent of sticking a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Wal-Mart may deserve some faint praise, but Americans mustn’t accept the idea that lower sodium contents and elimination of trans fats mean an end to the obesity epidemic.

“With more than 140 million customers each week, Wal-Mart is uniquely positioned to make a difference by making food healthier and more affordable to everyone,” said Wal-Mart President and CEO Bill Simon in a report on the corporation’s website. He also noted the ongoing disconnect between affordable and substantive food and his company’s attempt to reduce it — especially in “underserved areas.”

But Wal-Mart isn’t going to solve this disconnect as long as it sells cheap double bacon cheeseburger pizzas, 520-calorie pot pies, and frozen cannelloni with 75 percent of the daily recommended intake of saturated fat.

Andrea Thomas, Wal-Mart’s senior vice president of sustainability, maintained that the new initiative is simply an effort to reduce unnecessary sodium and trans fats, which can contribute to hypertension and high cholesterol, respectively — making no mention of the kind of caloric density that turns the American environment increasingly obesogenic.

Iowa City resident Todd Thomas (no relation), while shopping with his wife at the Coralville Wal-Mart, told the DI Editorial Board on Jan. 22 that he wouldn’t necessarily change his habits to reflect the chain’s new venture. “I don’t really think about health,” he said. “It’s just convenient.”

This highlights one of the most daunting challenges in breaking Americans away from their reliance on nutritionally bankrupt processed food: time commitments. Whole, nutritious food can be cheap and delicious, but it also requires much more preparation than a microwave dinner. Food-movement celebrity Michael Pollan blames the minimal time Americans spend cooking with much of their extra physical weight.

The multifaceted solution to the obesity epidemic is famously complicated; it involves matters of labor (as time spent working is time not spent cooking), justice (prejudice against overweight people is wholly reprehensible), socioeconomic inequality, agricultural subsidies, health care, and education. It is difficult to reconcile Wal-Mart’s profit motives with the fight against obesity-fueled health conditions, particularly given the current contents of its comestible aisles; the profit margins on nonperishable food (often processed) greatly exceed those on fresh produce.

It’s good to see Wal-Mart moving toward the slightly healthier side of merchandising, but the Obama-partnered initiative is hardly the new dawn of a benevolent big-box hegemony. If Wal-Mart is serious about partnering with Michelle Obama to combat childhood obesity, it must be willing to sacrifice extraordinary profit margins on high-fat, high-sugar foods, and cut down calories and non-food ingredients, not just simple elements such as sodium and trans fats. Its corporate history should incline shoppers toward skepticism at this new effort, even if they can enjoy reduced-price apples and broccoli with their “All American Fried Chicken.”


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