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Joined by First Lady Michelle Obama in the nation’s capital, mega-retailer Walmart, which is also the largest U.S. grocer, took the wraps off a comprehensive program to provide shoppers with healthier, more affordable food options.
The initiative’a five key elements are:
- Reformulating thousands of everyday packaged food items by 2015 by lowering sodium content 25 percent and added sugars 10 percent, and by removing all remaining industrially produced trans fats. Walmart will also collaborate with suppliers to boost the nutritional quality of national-food brands as well as its own Great Value private brand in major product categories.
- Providing healthier choices that are more reasonably priced, thereby saving customers around $1 billion annually on fresh fruits and vegetables through a range of sourcing, pricing, and transportation and logistics moves that will cut extraneous costs from the supply chain. Further, the company will considerably reduce or eliminate the price premium on such popular better-for-you items as reduced-sodium, -sugar or -fat products.
- Developing strong guidelines for a simple front-of-package seal enabling shoppers to identify at a glance healthier food choices like whole grain cereal, whole wheat pasta or unsweetened canned fruit.
- Offering solutions to populate food deserts by opening stores in underserved communities in need of fresh, affordable groceries.
- Ramping up charitable backing of nutrition programs that inform consumers about healthier food choices.
“No family should have to choose between food that is healthier for them and food they can afford,” noted Bill Simon, president and CEO of Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart U.S. “With more than 140 million customer visits each week, Walmart is uniquely positioned to make a difference by making food healthier and more affordable to everyone. We are committed to working with suppliers, government and nongovernmental organizations to provide solutions that help Americans eat healthier and live a better life.”
The effort takes its inspiration from the First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign, which aims to make healthy lifestyle choices easier and more affordable for families.
“Few individuals have done more to raise awareness of the importance of healthier habits — especially among children — than [Michelle Obama] has,” observed Walmart EVP of corporate affairs Leslie Dach. “She was a catalyst that helped make [the Walmart program launch] a reality, and her spirit of collaboration made our commitment to bring better nutrition to kitchen tables across this country even stronger.”
Walmart’s goal is to reformulate key product categories in the Great Value product line and work with suppliers on their items to reduce sodium, sugar and trans fats within the same categories by 2015.
“Our customers tell us they want a variety of food choices and need help feeding their families healthier foods,” observed Andrea Thomas, Walmart’s EVP of sustainability. “At Walmart, we are committed to doing both. We support consumer choice, so this is not about telling people what they should eat. Our customers understand that products like cookies and ice cream are meant to be an indulgent treat. This effort is aimed at eliminating sodium, sugar and trans fat in products where they are not really needed.”
The undertaking has garnered praise from unlikely quarters. “I applaud Walmart for moving the food industry in a healthier direction,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, based in Washington, which is often critical of the food industry. “Walmart’s action should virtually eliminate artificial trans fat and significantly reduce salt in packaged foods, and, most importantly, prevent thousands of fatal heart attacks and strokes each year.”
Among the ideas Walmart will implement to lower product prices is the establishment of more direct relationships with farmers, which normally lead to extra income for the farmers and lower, more consistent prices for their customers.
“Our customers often ask us why whole wheat pasta sometimes costs more than regular pasta made by the same manufacturer,” noted Thomas. “We will use our size and scale to reduce the price premium on these types of products whenever possible, because customers shouldn’t have to pay more to eat healthier. Customers should be able to choose knowing the biggest difference in these products is not the price, but rather that one is better for you.”
The front-of-package seal, which will be created in consultation with health organizations, will start appearing where appropriate on Walmart’s private branded foods later this year. The company will also offer the seal to suppliers for use on qualifying national brands that qualify. According to Walmart, the seal will complement a front-of package nutrition labeling system already under discussion by the food industry.
According to Simon, the company’s suppliers are enthusiastic about the seal: “Many of them are already exhibiting strong leadership in this area, and together we can have an enormous impact on the health and wellbeing of our customers and their families.”
In the matter of food deserts in both urban and rural areas, “we are focused on developing new formats and new approaches that will offer underserved communities fresh and affordable food options where they are needed most,” noted Simon.
Last year, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation introduced a $2 billion effort to combat hunger through 2015 by contributing fresh, nutritious food items to food banks across the United States. In keeping with its plans to boost charitable support for food education efforts, the Walmart Foundation has awarded Share Our Strength, a national organization that provides food insecure children with nutritious food, a $1.5 million grant to expand the “Cooking Matters” initiative and launch “Shopping Matters” nutrition education programs. The company will also join forces with the Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonpartisan convener of private-public sector efforts, to help find a solution to U.S. obesity epidemic.
Walmart operates more than 8,700 retail units under 59 banners in 15 countries.