Today, Wal-Mart announced a five-year plan to make its store-brand foods “healthier,” to develop its own front-of-package seal to identify healthier products, and also to lower prices on fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain products. They also plan to “address food deserts” and to increase charitable donations to nutrition programs.
Now Walmart, more than any retail store, is helping to prop up a bad food system. The quantities of food that it orders are so large that they can only be supplied by industrial farms. Its emphasis on dirt-cheap prices puts pressure on its distributors to cut costs in any way that they can. It proposes to solve food deserts not by empowering community members to produce and/or source and distribute more of their own food, but by inundating these communities with unbeatably-cheap commodity food shipped from halfway around the world and managed by well-paid people in offices halfway around the country. But, as we’re working towards real solutions, one meal, one small farm, one blog entry at a time, the rest of America is shopping at Wal-Mart. Could these changes be a good thing?
Wal-Mart plans to completely eliminate trans-fats from all of its store-brand packaged foods, as well as reduce sodium by 25% and added sugars by 10% in certain foods by 2015. The list of products in line for an upgrade includes not just the expected chips, breakfast cereal, and other total junk, but also canned beans, rice, and salad dressing. Yes, people can always buy dried beans. Of course the only rice that would include any of these ingredients is the packaged instant variety. Salad dressing is easy to make. The healthier option in each of these cases is also the more economical option. But we’re not going to teach the country how to soak beans or emulsify a vinaigrette overnight. Point being, people who buy salad dressing eat salad. Getting out the toxic trans-fats could provide serious benefits to people who are trying their best to serve their families nutritious food. Of course, those trans-fats are not going to be replaced by nutritious olive oil, and some people argue that cheap soybean or canola oil is just as bad. I try to avoid these oils too. But trans-fats, it seems, are something just about everyone agrees on, so they’re a good place to start. Also significant is that when Wal-Mart says they want to “eliminate trans fats,” they mean that their products can’t have partially hydrogenated oils listed in the ingredients at all. The rather slack FDA standards allow food processors to claim “0 grams trans fat” as long as a product has less than .5 grams/serving.
As for the front-of-package label, the criteria it is using to determine “healthy” processed foods is weak. It allows food to contain up to 25% of its calories as added sugars, for example. Of course, this is to be expected – these are criteria that Wal-Mart created for Wal-Mart’s own food, which they obviously want people to buy.
This ABC News article quoted Michael Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, as saying, “I’m disappointed they didn’t do anything with regard to soft drinks. They are the number one source of sugar and probably the biggest contributor in our diet to weight gain.” While I agree, I’m not sure I can say I share his disappointment – what could Wal-Mart possibly “do about” soft drinks, liquid sugar delivery vehicles that they are, other than agree to stop selling them? That might help people rediscover the economical and highly convenient alternative that the government has conspired to have piped directly into our homes.
Marion Nestle, author of the blog food politics, argues that Wal-Mart’s plan to lower the price of fruits and vegetables could be the most positive part of this initiative. I disagree. According to this New York Times article, they plan to lower prices by cutting into their own profit margin, but hope to make up for it by increasing sales volume. This might actually work. If there is one thing Wal-Mart is good at, it’s getting massive amounts of stuff to massive numbers of people for very little money, and managing to skim a serious profit off of the top. The article specifically quotes Leslie Dach, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president for corporate affairs, as saying, “This is not about asking farmers to accept less for their crops.” Glad that the question is being raised, though Dach’s words aren’t exactly convincing, given Wal-Mart’s track record. But even if he’s right, I’m not sure if cheaper produce would be a good thing. Because I don’t think produce in this country is too expensive. If anything, it’s already too cheap. It’s not subsidized like the corn- and soy-based processed food that make it seem expensive by comparison, but industrial producers of fruits and vegetables do externalize the environmental costs of their fertilizers, their pesticides, and their whole fossil-fuel based production system. So much so that good organic farmers have a hard time charging enough to make a living, even when their customers are willing to pay a premium for their products.
I believe that most of us can actually afford to spend a little bit more on food. The average American household only spends 9.7% of its budget on food – less than we ever have before, and according to Michael Pollan, less than people in any other country. But, of course, not everyone can afford to increase their food spending. And I know how presumptuous it sounds when someone in a position of relative privilege tells people that they need to spend more money on anything. Luckily, with a few adjustments most people could afford healthy foods like fresh produce within the food budget they already have. We need education efforts that show people this is possible.
We need to combat the idea that fast food, in comparison to food cooked at home, is cheap. And we need to teach people how to cook at home from raw ingredients, so they can stop buying the “value-added” convenience products that Wal-Mart is trying to make healthier. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time. But it will take a mental shift, a desire to learn, and a little bit of effort. Yep – we need to teach people to soak beans and emulsify vinaigrettes. It’s not going to happen overnight. But, ultimately, it’s what’s going to make a difference. And that’s why we’re all doing what we’re doing, instead of lobbying Coca-Cola to reduce their sugar content from 39 grams per serving to 35.
I think it’s a good thing that there is enough public pressure building around nutrition to scare Wal-Mart into making these changes. But let’s not take the pressure off now.
Oh yeah. Also, the fervor with which Michelle Obama has been praising Wal-Mart is a bit disturbing. “It’s a victory for parents. It’s a victory for families, but most of all, it’s a victory for our children,” she said. And, “when I see a company like Walmart launch an initiative like this I feel more hopeful than ever before.” Really?
This post is a part of Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade.