Walmart’s recent healthy food initiative, which aims to make healthy food more accessible and affordable, has received a range of responses including support from First Lady Michelle Obama to downright skepticism from some food policy experts. Walmart’s plans include reducing sodium, sugar and fat contents in its grocery offerings, developing a more efficient food procurement process, and increasing access to fresh and affordable food in rural and urban food deserts.
Healthy food can mean a lot of things depending on who you ask. In general, the U.S. health community has taken the tack that healthy food means something inherent in the properties of the food. It’s low-fat! It’s low-sodium! It’s got fiber!
The more important issue – as many public health advocates are saying – is to focus on the entire environment in which people live and how that contributes to an overall healthy diet.
The environments in which people live influence what kind of diet they can enjoy. For instance, do people live in a high or a low-income zip code? Do they live in rural areas where the local grocer is a convenience store, or do they live in prosperous towns with numerous shopping choices? These are the kind of factors that influence overall health.
The environment in which people live also includes their economic system, which influences the availability of jobs and what they pay. Walmart has responded to past investigations in to their pay scales by increasing access to health insurance for their employees, etc.
But do big box retailers hurt other businesses, such as small businesses that would compete with them, or suppliers that may get squeezed? What happens to the economic environment when Walmart is the only choice for farmers to sell to and for consumers to buy from? Is that going to make sure that people can afford to live in an environment in which healthy food is available?
Healthy food has larger societal consequences as well. Do farm workers who pick and process our fruit and vegetables have a decent wage and good housing? Or are they instead among the lowest in terms of food security? Do the small farmers who supply global grocers, such as Walmart, make a decent living that allows them to flourish in their home countries? Or do they instead abandon their farms and look for work in wealthier areas?
What are the larger consequences of our search for healthy food?
Walmart has been down the path of social responsibility before, showing that they can commit to reducing energy use, in a sense going green, because it works for their company’s bottom line. This is the environmental community would call a win-win as it reduces fossil fuel use and helps Walmart’s profitability.
As a profit-focused business, Walmart won’t make decisions that consciously lose money unless they think it will strengthen their future business. It seems most likely that Walmart has considered their move toward healthy food as it impacts their bottom line.
If Walmart makes healthier foods available, that can help. But there may also be a larger economic and societal problem at stake.