Walmart Revisited (Part One): A Round-Up of Opinion From the Blogosphere

by Bettina Elias Siegel on January 27, 2011

Last week I reported on Walmart’s announcement regarding its new, wide-ranging nutrition initiative, formulated in close association with the First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! program.

To recap, the retailer has pledged to:

  • improve the nutritional profile of thousands of packaged food products sold under its Great Value house brand, meeting specific targets for sodium, trans fats and added sugars over the next five years, and make these improved products cheaper than their less-healthy counterparts;
  • press its major food suppliers to follow its lead with respect to their own products;
  • lower the prices on fresh fruits and vegetables sold in its stores;
  • build additional stores in urban areas which are currently “food deserts;” and
  • increase its charitable contributions for nutrition programs.

Ever since the Walmart announcement, the blogosphere has been abuzz with debate over whether the Walmart initiative is a positive development or mere corporate white-washing.  I can’t do justice to all the talk out there, but in Part One of this post, I want to give you a round-up of some good opinion pieces to take a look at.

In Part Two, I’ll tell you why I still feel, despite some valid criticisms offered here, that the Walmart/White House deal may prove to be a net good.

Pieces Criticizing the Wal-Mart Deal

Anna Lappé writes on Civil Eats that Walmart’s goals with respect to its house brand products are weak at best, and are likely a calculated move to forestall government regulation of its packaging.  She also notes that the promises made by Walmart are non-binding and may be abandoned once the publicity fades away, and she’s unimpressed with Walmart’s promise to build more urban markets, given its abysmal labor record and its detrimental effects on local economies.

Kristen Wartman, also writing for Civil Eats, agrees with Lappé that the nutritional changes to Walmart’s products are mere “health-washing” (the nutritional version of green-washing), and dismisses Walmart’s promises to offer lower price fruits and vegetables by asking, “[W]hy can’t the government step in and subsidize fruits and vegetables like they do the corn and soy that go into nearly every processed food item?”

Michelle Simon, author of the book Appetite for Profit and the blog of the same name, looks less at the specifics of the proposal and more at the process.  She asks pointedly:

What was the First Lady’s staff doing in secret talks with Walmart for over a year? How did such an approach even get started? Here’s an alternative scenario: Congress holds hearings (you know, in public) on how the entire food industry should be changing its ways with enforceable, meaningful laws that apply to everyone, not just Walmart.

And she, too, wonders whether Walmart will actually live up to its promsies down the road.

A Pro-Wal-Mart View

Not everyone thinks the deal is a bad thing.  Lauren Hope Vicary, writing for Politics Daily, recognizes Walmart’s many sins but takes a pragmatic view.  Noting that more than 60,000 companies supply Walmart, she imagines the huge trickle-down effect Walmart’s nutritional goals may have in the marketplace.  She also notes that “[f]ood is expensive. Really expensive. And healthy food even more so. Not everyone can afford to shop at places that are jokingly referred to as ‘Whole Paycheck.'”

Marion Nestle’s View – Somewhere in Between

Finally, it’s worth reading the always-helpful Marion Nestle, of Food Politics.  In her piece on the initiative, Nestle greets the news about Walmart’s product changes with the same skepticism as other commenters, and wonders whether the “food desert” issue is just a way for Walmart to shoehorn new stores into areas where they’ve been unwanted in the past.  But she does feel that the plan to make healthier foods, including fruits and vegetables and the better-for-you processed foods, cheaper, could be beneficial — provided it doesn’t hurt farmers in the process. She cautions, “Walmart didn’t provide many details and we will have to see how this one plays out.”

So what’s my take?

To avoid a post that’s too long to read in one sitting, I’ll provide that answer in Part Two, up asap! (The day is getting away from me.)

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

NotCinderell January 27, 2011 at 10:44 am

I was re-reading parts of Fast Food Nation the other day, and I’m reminded of Eric Schlosser’s comments about McDonald’s. The CEO’s of large corporations aren’t evil, they’re just businessmen who think about the bottom line. Their business is to give people what they want as efficiently or cheaply as possible. One of the major reasons that I don’t buy much of my food at Wal-Mart is that Wal-Mart, by and large, doesn’t have want I want. Wal-Mart wishes that more people like me could find more of what they want at Wal-Mart and not look for it other places.

The best defense against places like Wal-Mart is to keep doing what we’re doing: spread the word about how a highly-processed diet is bad for you and how cheap, unprocessed foods are accessible. Convince your neighbors to want things other than what they sell at Wal-Mart. When Wal-Mart’s sales start slipping, they’ll start catering to the changing desires of society.

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NotCindrell January 27, 2011 at 10:47 am

I should point out that to a great degree, these changes have already taken place. I buy certain food products (dry beans, tomato paste, baking powder) at Wal-Mart because they’re either cheaper than my regular grocery store, or the regular grocery store’s generics aren’t certified kosher. Ten years ago, Wal-Mart didn’t have generic tomato paste, dry beans, and baking powder. This is Wal-Mart responding to our demands.

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Tari January 27, 2011 at 12:45 pm

I will say that if anyone can make their vendors do something, it’s the Big W. I’ve worked for one of their vendors, and wow, can they treat you like dirt – no matter if you’re selling toilet paper or data center-running hardware and software. You wait in the hall outside the procurement officer’s office on uncomfortable plastic chairs, crowded up with other vendor reps waiting for appointments, and half the time the secretary comes out after 4 hours and tells you there’s no time for you today: you flew all the way up to BFE Arkansas for nothing and now have to come back next week. By the time you finally get the deal, Wal-Mart has you ready to do absolutely ANYTHING for them just to get it over with. So if they’re actually serious about forcing their vendors to do something new, it WILL happen.

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