January 20th, 2011
06:40 PM ET
The largest grocery chain in the country has announced an extensive five-year plan to make its food healthier and more affordable. Walmart, which serves roughly 140 million consumers a week, announced the initiative as a collaboration between its corporation and first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign.
"To more and more of our customers, living better means the ability to walk into our stores and find foods that will help their families live healthier lives," said Leslie Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs at Walmart. "And importantly, to find these foods at prices they can afford."
Saving money and living better do not always go together when it comes to food. Often highly processed foods rich in sodium, trans-fats, or added sugars are less expensive, and thus more affordable, than fresh produce. Access to healthy foods is also an issue; so-called "food deserts" exist throughout the country, leaving many Americans with minimal access to healthy fare.
Walmart says its multi-pronged plan addresses both problems. For instance, Walmart has identified "key product categories," or thousands of foods sold by both national manufacturers and Walmart's house brand, that the company says could be reformulated to be healthier. The goal is to reduce the sodium content in foods such as deli meats and salad dressing by 25 percent by 2015.
Added sugars in various sauces, fruit drinks, or dairy items will be reduced by 10 percent, while all trans-fats will be completely removed from packaged food items. The company hopes other food manufactuers will fall in line and adopt the same standards.
"If the reformulations are adopted by the entire grocery industry, adults in the U.S. will consume approximately 47 million fewer pounds of sodium each year," said Andrea Thomas, a senior vice president of sustainability at Walmart.
Walmart also wants to revise its supply chain to lower costs on healthy foods and ultimately make them more affordable. The company estimates it could save Americans $1 billion a year on fresh fruits and vegetables if its plans are successful.
"This is a step forward," said William K. Hallman, director of the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University. "Walmart is a category leader so what Walmart does, lots of other companies will follow their lead."
"It's not just the people who shop at Walmart who would benefit from this, it's everybody."
To that end, Walmart's announcement has the potential to make a tremendous impact on America's collective waistline. As recently as last fall, an economics professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro calculated that for every Supercenter that opened per 100,000 residents, the average BMI of the local population increased 0.24 units and the obesity rate jumped up by 2.3 percentage points.
"In a way, us finding what we did almost accentuates that what they're trying to do could have an impact in the other direction," said Charles Courtemanche, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina Greenboro.
"Walmart is actually so large...they actually have the power to affect an individual's choices for good or for bad."
Courtemanche's paper will be published in the March issue of the Journal of Urban Economics.
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