Backs Against the Wal

I would be surprised if anyone, let alone anyone in the “foodie bubble” hasn’t heard the news of Wal-Mart‘s new commitment to selling healthy food. I’ve got a list of links below, but some points to remember on the new program:

  • it will be officially rolled out in the US only – Wal-Mart Canada will be affected only in terms of house-brand products, and any influence to other corporately-produced foods
  • the goal is to reduce added sugars, salt and industrial trans fats in Wal-Mart’s own branded products and to pressure corporate food processors to do the same  – this is really just making unhealthy processed foods *slightly* less bad, it is NOT a concerted effort to add healthy foods, or brands with health as part of their MO to the shelves
  • junk food, particularly soda, will remain unaffected, leaving the “choice” up to consumers

However, we cannot overlook Wal-Mart’s huge buying power – it is the only corporation in the world that can get away with dictating to producers how their product must be made, right down to the packaging. (Wal-Mart is in the process of implementing sustainability ratings for all products it sells, which will include disposal of said product and its packaging.)

The new program also vows to bring food to food deserts, support smaller farms, bring back staple crops to areas that have been hard hit by competition from California and Florida, and shorten travel distances for the food it sells.

Are you buying it? Wal-Mart obviously wants to be seen as a global team player with people’s best interests in mind. In recent years they’ve dedicated themselves to sustainable shrimp, local food producers, sustainability, and they’re the largest retailer of organic food in North America… but do they really care about our health? And if they’re such a caring company, how come their track record with employee treatment and union busting is still so horrible? How come we’re still letting them gut and destroy the business districts of small towns everywhere? You want to give them props for their efforts, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that they’re still a pretty bad employer and corporate citizen in many ways.

Here’s what other folks are saying:

  • What Wal-Mart’s healthy food announcement really means. [The Atlantic]
  • Support from Michelle Obama (presidential support for a private corporation is rare, and the Obamas have not been fans of Wal-Mart in the past) speaks to a bit of desperation for support of her health and nutrition program. [The Guardian]
  • A fairly straight-forward press release. Other sources are questioning whether the move will actually save customers money on fresh fruits and vegetables at all. [Food Navigator]
  • Can we become “frenemies”; remembering the evil that Wal-Mart does while supporting the good? [Eater]
  • Marion Nestle calls bullshit on a bunch of Wal-Mart’s plans (such as front of package-labelling to identify “healthier” products) and points out that if their vow is to offer produce at cheaper prices, will it come at the expense of small farmers? [Food Politics]
  • I particularly love the reference in this piece to a study that shows a correlation between existing Wal-Mart super-centres and a rise in obesity rates in the surrounding population. [Grist]
  • Healthier and more affordable – as one commenter points out, how can they make it any cheaper than it already is? Which, again, forces us to look at what they’ll demand from farmers. [CNN: Eatocracy]
  • Wal-Mart claims the savings will come through better distribution and transportation. [Civil Eats]
  • Another overview of the proposal and Michelle Obama’s involvement. [New York Times]
  • And here in Canada, we’re not buying the message at all. (See comments on this piece.) [Globe and Mail]