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Why We Should Question Walmart’s Latest PR Blitz

Walmart made big news this week with a press conference alongside the First Lady to announce new company commitments. Most of the mainstream media coverage of the Walmart announcement seemed to buy the company PR that it was taking valiant steps to improve the affordability and health qualities of the food it sells. Among these commitments, Walmart said it will be working with food suppliers to reduce sodium, sugars, and trans fat in certain products by 2015; developing its own seal to help consumers identify healthier products; and addressing hunger by opening Walmart stores in the nation’s “food deserts.”

Do these Walmart promises really hold big upsides for health and food insecurity? The Times seemed to think so, running with this headline: “Wal-Mart Shifts Strategy to Promote Healthy Foods.” (Am I crazy or does that read remarkably like the Walmart press release: “Walmart Launches Major Initiative to Make Food Healthier and Healthier Food More Affordable”?) Had the Times been aiming for accuracy it might better have titled the article: “Walmart Launches PR Campaign Promoting Promises to Win the Hearts and Minds of Urban Consumers.”

With little critical coverage in the mainstream media, we are left to ponder the impact of these Walmart commitments ourselves. Thankfully, we have the wisdom of experts like Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and What to Eat, to shed light on these claims. (Check out her take here). One of Nestle’s most important points is that Walmart’s promise to develop its own front-of-package seal is a clever preemption of work underway at the Institutes of Medicine and FDA to “establish research-based criteria” for such packaging and create regulations for the entire industry, with real oversight.

Let’s dig deeper and look carefully at what the company is saying it is committing to doing. Specifically, Wal-Mart is pledging to “reduce sodium by 25 percent, eliminate industrially added trans fats, and reduce added sugars by ten percent by 2015” in some of the processed foods that it carries.

Impressive? Not so fast.

First, consider that it’s not unusual for a can of soup to contain as much as 2,291 mg, or more, of sodium. (For perspective, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend we consume just 1,500 mg a day). We need to reduce that sodium figure significantly more than 25 percent on many of Walmart products before we dare call them “healthy.” As for trans fats, public health advocates have long been advocating for all food producers to eliminate trans fats across the entire food supply. Finally, a 12 oz. can of Coke, for instance, bought at Walmart—and which the company notoriously pushes at steep discounts—will already contain 39 grams of sugars, the upper limit of what is often suggested as the total daily consumption for non-diabetics. In other words, Walmart’s nutritional commitments are really about making the unhealthy processed food it sells marginally better, at best; at worse, it’s offering the veneer of healthfulness to foods that should be considered bad for us.

These nutritional promises are not only weak in their aspirational goals; they’re also non-binding, which means we’ve got to take the company on its word. These nutritional promises are not only weak in their aspirational goals; they’re also non-binding, which means we’ve got to take the company on its word. (The White House’s Sam Kass has stressed that all these proposals can be verified in an “open, transparent” manner. But with Walmart’s history of backroom deals—like its lobbying with other retailers against strict meth laws—I’m dubious).

Corporate driven, non-binding promises like these are also the oldest trick in the food industry PR playbook. Just ask Michele Simon author of Appetite for Profit, who details how Pepsi, Kraft, and numerous other food companies have made similar promises and gotten  big payback with good press even though they’ve done very little to actually improve the health qualities of their products. These commitments also receive great press at first—note the windfall for Walmart—but there is little accountability over time when the changes are supposed to be made.

Now, let’s turn to the Walmart claim that the company wants to move into urban markets, and reduce the costs of some of its food items, to help low-income people access more affordable food. The New York Times writes that “that low-income people, especially those who receive food stamps, face special dietary challenges because eating healthy costs more and healthier food is harder to get in their neighborhoods.” Yet, the Times fails to mention the studies that have found that because of Walmart’s low wages and benefits, its employees rely on food stamps and other social services far more than the typical retail employee. While Walmart is spending a lot of time and money saying they plan to address food insecurity, the company is actually exacerbating its underlying root causes.

The Times also mentions that Walmart will help address food deserts, defined as “a dearth of grocery stores selling fresh produce in rural and underserved urban areas,” by building more stores, the paper didn’t quote any community-based activists addressing these so-called food deserts on the ground. Do these community advocates think Walmart is the solution? Are they happy Walmart has set its eyes on Washington DC, New York City, Chicago, and other urban markets? Of those I’ve talked to, all are skeptical of the company’s promises and highly critical of the Walmart model: the anti-worker rights, low-wage, low-benefit way of doing business.

We also have plenty of evidence now that when Walmart moves into town, the company puts small businesses out of business and sucks capital out of the community. For every dollar spent at a Walmart, only a small fraction stays to benefit the local economy. We’ve seen enough evidence, too, that the company has a long, dark track record of sex discrimination and workers rights abuses.

Let’s be clear, expanding into so-called food deserts is an expansion strategy for Walmart. It’s not a charitable move. Making a big PR splash about improving the health qualities of its food is a smart tactic to deflect attention from the real impact of Walmart on the quality of life for Americans. (Is it a coincidence that this press conference occurred the same week a new study was gaining attention that tracked health and population data and found links between Walmart expansion from 1996 to 2005 and increased rates of obesity?)

As far as I’m concerned, as long as the company depresses wages, exploits workers, violates workers rights, and pushes highly processed foods and sodas, Walmart is not only failing to address the problem of food deserts and food insecurity, the company is exacerbating their root causes.

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