Can Walmart and Big Business Change the Food System?

Michelle Obama certainly thinks so. But the food justice community remains skeptical.

The First Lady champions Walmart in her op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal. (Photo: Jewel Samad/Getty Images)

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor. He has written for The Awl, The New Inquiry, and elsewhere.

Michelle Obama capped off a week during which she danced the Dougie on Jimmy Fallon and announced the Best Picture award at the Oscars on a less pop-y note: penning an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal.

Writing on nutrition and childhood obesity, Obama says that the conventional wisdom that “healthy food simply didn’t sell” is being proven wrong, and that “Every day, great American companies are achieving greater and greater success by creating and selling healthy products.” 

The piece continues in this vein, making the same corporate-change-from-the-inside argument put forth in a recent report from the Hudson Institute—Lower-Calorie Foods: It’s Just Good Business—which the First Lady references in her article. In particular, she celebrates the strides Walmart has taken. 

Two years ago, Obama attended a Walmart press conference where the company announced a litany of healthy food initiatives. A number of the pledges touched on food justice issues, such a making healthy processed foods more affordable, increasing charitable nutrition-assistance programs, and opening stores in food deserts and other low-access neighborhoods.

In her op-ed, the First Lady highlights ways in which the chain has followed through on those promises, presenting Walmart as proof that supports “The Business Case for Healthier Food Options,” as the piece is titled. “In just the past two years, the company reports that it has cut the costs to its consumers of fruits and vegetables by $2.3 billion and reduced the amount of sugar in its products by 10%,” she writes, adding that 86 new stores have been opened in “underserved communities.”

Food justice advocates and activist, however, aren’t exactly buying her story. “It's naïve to think that corporations are interested in doing anything more than selling food at a profit,” LaDonna Redmond, the senior program associate for food and justice at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, said of the First Lady’s pro-business argument. “If corporations were interested in public health we would not have the problems that we have with the food system.”

D’Artagnan Scorza, the Executive Director of the Social Justice Learning Institute, which works on food justice issues in Inglewood, Calif., was more measured in his response, telling TakePart, “I think the First Lady recognizes the importance of business and entrepreneurship in creating a new, healthy food economy.” But Scorza adds that Walmart, “with its challenging business practices, is not the example we should be following to achieve this goal.”

Indeed, research has shown that the opening of new Walmart locations actually decreases food access. In response to the op-ed, public health lawyer Michele Simon pointed her Twitter followers to a report issued by Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer in 2011, which examined the potential impact a Walmart would have on the “healthy food retail landscape” in Harlem. “A Walmart opening at West 125th Street and Lenox Avenue could lead to 30 to 41 fresh food retailers going out of business within one year and 48 to 66 fresh food stores closing within two years,” Stringer wrote of the findings. “Even with the fresh food retail space a Walmart might bring, Harlem would see a loss of 56,000 to 82,000 square feet of food-based retail.”

But Obama seems convinced that corporate collaboration is the way to success: “We need more leaders from all across the country to step up,” she implores, “and I stand ready to work with business leaders who are serious about taking meaningful steps to forge a healthier future.”

Scourza appears to be somewhat game to pursue the First Lady’s collaborative approach, saying that “I do agree with her that we need to be creative and entrepreneurial” in seeking solutions to the problems in the food system. But he adds that the movement has to stick “to our principles of justice, equity and opportunity-making for that mother and her child who are suffering from poor food options in our communities.” 

Redmond, however, can’t see the industry as pursuant of change or as a trustworthy partner. “If any changes have occurred the credit should go to farmers, farm laborers, and activists working on the ground to get fresh fruits and vegetables to consumers,” she writes in an email. “This work is led by small family farmers, urban farmers and a host of public health experts have developed local food access in spite of unrelenting corporate control of the food system. The corporate food business model focus has always focused on profit never on people.” 

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