Can Wal-Mart Make 140 Million Americans Healthier?
Question: If the price of an organic apple (packaged in Styrofoam and tightly wrapped in plastic) falls in a Walmart store, and no one is interested in buying it, will it make a sound, or even a difference?
Walmart officials seem to think so. This week Walmart, with the help and backing of first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign, unleashed an ambitious five-year campaign to clean up the companies somewhat dismal nutritional profile (and tarnished reputation) by increasing healthy food offerings, reducing fresh produce prices, and generally improving access to affordable food. Walmart’s new initiative aims to reduce sugar by 10 percent, sodium by 25 percent, and eliminate industrially produced trans fat in its store brand line, Great Value, by 2015. In addition to cutting out the fat, sugar, and salt in Walmart products, the company is set to lower prices on fresh fruit and vegetables. This will no doubt cut into the companies profits (one of the components of the business that they company rabidly protects) but Walmart officials are optimistic that it will make up for the loss in profits with an increase in sales volume.
Walmart sells more groceries than any other company in the country (140 million shoppers per week) so the impact of this development has the potential to be significant. And on the surface, this decision seems to be an overwhelmingly positive step for the company, and the 140 million people who choose (or are compelled because of an utter lack of options) to feed their family on Walmart groceries. But you cannot overlook the pragmatism of this decision. Walmart has been under fire for quite sometime because of their shabby record on everything from workers rights to trade bullying, and while companies like Whole Foods (a company with not exactly a spot-free record) grab much of the market share of the growing natural and organics sector, it only makes sense for Walmart to do what they can to hang on to customers and potentially cultivate new ones. In the most cynical of terms, Walmart are pursuing this initiative because it presents a significant opportunity to grow revenue and profits for the company. If they can save lives by going a little lighter on the value packs of Mountain Dew and Pringles, and there is a tangible benefit for their customers along with an appealing PR spin, then why the hell not?
If we want to really indulge our cynicism, we could poke some holes in the plan for not being ambitious enough, specifically because these changes are not expected to be fully realized for another five years (between now and then, there will assuredly be a few more cases of obesity and heart disease). And some ardent critics of Walmart’s business practices will no doubt take issue with the fact that, by lowering profits on such things as organic apples and produce, that Walmart will very likely squeeze more product for less cost out of local growers and farmers. And the company, which many critics blame for the proliferation of “food deserts” throughout the country (places where the availability of fresh and healthy food options are slim or non-existent), now claims that they will address this problem by…(wait for it) opening more stores. I am not so sure this is the answer to our problem, but if Walmart 2.0 becomes the largest purveyor of healthy and nutritious foods in the country, it may, at least, be better than what we are contending with now.
Leslie Dach, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president for corporate affairs recently told The New York Times, “We’ve always said that we don’t think the Wal-Mart shopper should have to choose between a product that is healthier for them and what they can afford.” But sadly, this has been the case for over a decade. That said, it does feel somewhat like a positive baby step forward that a company like Walmart is moved to provide a better nutritional standard for their shoppers (regardless of where the motivations reside). In your view, will this change make enough of a difference? Would this compel you to shop at Walmart, or is this just good news for the 140 million weekly already frequenting the Walmart aisles? Can mega-corporations like Walmart make a positive impact on how and what Americans eat, or will their bottom line motivations ultimately sell their customers short?