Yesterday I posted a round-up of various blogger’s opinions on Walmart’s recently announced nutrition initiative. Many of them greeted the news with a heavy dose of skepticism, questioning whether the initiative is anything but corporate white washing — and taking issue with the behind-the-scenes nature of the retailer’s negotiations with the First Lady and her Let’s Move! team.
So where do I come out?
Reformulation of Walmart Products
The nutritional re-jiggering of Walmart’s house brand products strikes me as unlikely to produce hugely meaningful changes across the board. As others have noted, a lot of these products are already of such questionable nutritional quality that the reformulations won’t suddenly make them healthy. That said, if the end result is that a box of house brand pilaf made from whole grain brown rice is cheaper than the one using white rice, or the house brand whole grain cereal is cheaper than the sugary one, how can that be anything but good for cash-strapped consumers?
Food activists have long lamented that soda is cheaper than milk, and McDonald’s is cheaper than a meal of whole foods. Now, in a way, Walmart is going to bring about what food policy experts can only dream of — i.e., something akin to a soda tax, where the least healthy products will now be more expensive than the healthier ones. Couldn’t this development drive consumer behavior in the right direction for a change?
Effect on Suppliers
Moreover, Walmart has pledged to get its major food suppliers to follow suit in reformulating their own products, which means that such changes will most certainly happen. (I used to work at one of the world’s largest consumer products and food conglomerates, and if Walmart told one of our companies to change its packaging or formulations, it was done yesterday.) That means Walmart consumers can look forward to an ever-growing array of better-for-you products offered at lower prices. Are they going to be the “best-for-you” products out there? Certainly not. We’re still talking about processed foods, after all. But to me, even incremental changes that improve a food’s nutritional profile are better than no such changes at all.
Cheaper Fruits and Vegetables
Probably of most interest to me is the promise by Walmart to bring cheaper fruits and vegetables to its consumers. Marion Nestle is right to ask how that move will affect small farmers, and that’s a huge open question.
But on a related note, I was very interested to read a piece published last year in The Atlantic Monthly which compared produce and other agricultural products (goat cheese, etc.) purchased at Whole Foods versus those purchased Walmart. The author (using a blind taste test and a panel of chefs) found that in many cases the Wal-Mart products are superior, but what really caught my attention was a description of Walmart’s Heritage Agriculture program, which I’d never heard about before.
Under the Heritage Agriculture program, Walmart encourages farms within a day’s drive from a Walmart warehouse to grow crops that would otherwise have to be shipped by truck over many days from Florida and California. Walmart’s motive, of course, is cost-cutting and a cynical desire to capitalize on the demand for all things “local,” but the effect is nonetheless hugely significant: local crops which had vanished due to competition from Big Agriculture are suddenly profitable again, resulting in more diversified agriculture, support for small local farmers, and fresher produce for consumers.
And Walmart is clearly putting significant thought and investment behind the program. According to the article, which highlighted Walmart’s particular efforts in Arkansas:
Walmart talked with the local branch of the Environmental Defense Fund . . . and with the Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas. The center (of which the Walmart Foundation is a chief funder) is part of a national partnership called Agile Agriculture, which includes universities such as Drake and the University of New Hampshire and nonprofits like the American Farmland Trust. To get more locally grown produce into grocery stores and restaurants, the partnership is centralizing and streamlining distribution for farms with limited growing seasons, limited production, and limited transportation resources.
Walmart says it wants to revive local economies and communities that lost out when agriculture became centralized in large states. . . . It’s not something you expect from Walmart, which is better known for destroying local economies than for rebuilding them.
As everyone who sells to or buys from (or, notoriously, works for) Walmart knows, price is where every consideration begins and ends. Even if the price Walmart pays for local produce is slightly higher than what it would pay large growers, savings in transport and the ability to order smaller quantities at a time can make up the difference. Contracting directly with farmers, which Walmart intends to do in the future as much as possible, can help eliminate middlemen, who sometimes misrepresent prices. . . .
Michelle Harvey, who is in charge of working with Walmart on agriculture programs at the local Environmental Defense Fund office, summarized a long conversation with me on the sustainability efforts she thinks the company is serious about: “It’s getting harder and harder to hate Walmart.”
Criticisms About Process
Two of the bloggers I cited yesterday would apparently still take issue with the Walmart deal — even if the best case scenarios I’ve described above come to pass.
Michelle Simon, author of the book Appetite for Profit and the blog of the same name, asked
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 Kristin Wartman, writing for Civil Eats, dismissed 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?”
Both of these questions strike me as terribly naive. First, nothing in the First Lady’s negotiations with Walmart precludes public Congressional hearings or changes to our nation’s agricultural policies. But radically reforming our food industry through the legislative process is going to be — let’s face it — close to impossible given the enormous lobbying influence of Big Agriculture.
Whether you think this is a lamentable state of affairs or not, Walmart wields tremendous power due to its size and it’s beholden only to its own shareholders, not any other entrenched interest. By working with Walmart directly, Mrs. Obama may have achieved far more in a year of back room negotiations than we could see in the coming decades by relying on the legislative process alone.
It of course remains to be seen how this all really plays out. And nothing I’ve talked about above relates to other, valid criticisms of the retailer, such as its shoddy labor practices. But viewed solely through the lens of how this deal may affect our nation’s health, I’m willing to keep an open mind.