In a recent press campaign, Walmart promised that it will reduce sodium by 25 percent, eliminate industrially added trans fats, reduce added sugars by 10 percent and make healthy food more affordable by 2015. Bill Simon, Walmart’s CEO stated that “No family should have to choose between food that is healthier for them and food they can afford”. And he is exactly right, but where’s the fine print? How can a $400 billion dollar multinational corporation really help with the obesity and nutrition crisis that it has helped to create?
The announcement has angered the nutrition media, who seem skeptical about change for good. Both David Katz, in his post, Walmart’s Health Changes: Fact or Fiction?, and Anna Lappe believe that Walmart is appealing to shareholders and urban consumers. Anna Lappe makes some great points in her article, Why We Should Question Walmart’s Latest PR Blitz, that the amount of sodium and sugar in products is already far too high and even reducing it by 10 or 20% won’t have enough impact. She also discusses the building of more Walmart stores, which can only have a negative impact on rural communities that are left with no choice than to buy from the big corporation with cheaper prices and more products than any local store can hope to compete with. Corporations, like Walmart, have caused more problems in smaller communities, by pushing out local farmers and businesses and making it impossible to compete.
Marion Nestle thinks that the most important change would come if Walmart were to truly reduce the price of fresh fruit and vegetables: What are we to think about Walmart’s healthy food initiatives? But in my opinion, affordability and availability is only one very small part of the problem in a world where education and understanding of nutrition is limited. I know that in my education I learned very little about farming, sustainability and healthy diet. It was my family’s influence and working in a health store that made me more aware of different diet choices.
In addition to the high fructose corn syrup, added vitamins and protein in products, another big difference I’ve noticed on moving to New York from the UK, is that food labeling and education on nutrition here is lagging. The recent healthy eating drive in England, spurred by the Food Standards Agency and TV programs such as Jamie’s school dinners and BBC’s The Truth About Food, is gradually helping to improve awareness around diet. Food labeling is much stricter in the UK, and packaged food must all show use by dates and traffic light labeling. Despite this measure, obesity in the UK is rising. The problem is far bigger than what is available in the supermarket and goes back to the routes of farming and politics, which is described in great detail in Raj Patel’s book, Stuffed and Starved. This is obviously a hot topic at the moment because The Guardian also published an article on this topic today, the Global food system must be transformed ‘on industrial revolution scale’.
If the big food corporations, like Walmart, truly want to make a difference to obesity and diet, I believe they should change their tactics and provide affordable sustainable and local produce. Walmart needs to work more closely with farmers, provide education on cooking and reduce the focus on selling ‘convenience foods’. However, this seems unlikely to happen considering its focus on profit margins rather that the health and happiness of its customers.