What do First Lady Michelle Obama and the world’s largest retailer have in common? Before yesterday, you would be hard-pressed for an answer, but Wal-Mart and Obama found common cause in the goal of a healthier America on Thursday when they unveiled the retailer’s plans to make the foods it sells healthier and more affordable.
The plan calls for reducing the levels of sugar and sodium, and eliminating all trans fat in packaged food. It also calls for lowering prices on produce and developing a logo to help customers more easily identify healthy food items. Obama explained that the retailer’s commitment to healthier food is a “huge victory for folks all across the country” and is a great sign that her “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity is gaining traction among business.
Similar efforts have been made by smaller food companies and many prominent government officials have voiced strong commitments to nutrition issues; NYC Mayor Bloomberg recently announced a plan to reduce sodium in US foods by 25%. However, as the world’s largest retailer, with upwards of 60,000 suppliers, any decision Wal-Mart makes carries considerable weight and has the potential to benefit the most Americans.
While yesterday’s announcement comes with the White House seal of approval, and could well be an important step toward increased access to healthier food, the retailer’s harsh treatment of its workers still casts a pall on the good this does. Wal-Mart has long been known for fighting unions, paying low wages, and not offering its workers decent benefits. Even the Obamas themselves have criticized Wal-Mart in the past. Four years ago, on the campaign trail, President Obama stated that he wouldn’t shop at Wal-Mart because of its anti-union polices and unfair treatment of workers; days later, Michelle Obama resigned from the board of Tree Foods, a Wal-Mart vendor.
So while it’s good to hear that Wal-Mart is going to offer healthier food to its customers, it doesn’t change the fact that the mega-retailer still needs to do far better by its workforce.