Michelle Obama: Major Chains Can Make Healthy Foods Affordable

With Wal-Mart and Walgreens signing on to the deal, an apple a day might be easier to get these days for the country's poor communities.

By Jorge Rivas Jul 25, 2011

Last week, Michelle Obama joined a group of large retail chains in announcing a plan to provide access to healthy, affordable food to millions of people in what have come to be known as the country’s food deserts. The retailers plan to open or expand over 1,500 stores over the next five years in rural and urban neighborhoods. The first lady’s high-profile endorsement, as part of her anti-obesity campaign, is the latest in her work with large chains, including controversial companies such as Wal-Mart, which has been greeted with both praise and criticism.

The Department of Agriculture defines "food deserts" as low-income areas where more than 500 people or 33 percent of the population lives more than one mile from an affordable food store. (Do you live in a food desert? Find out here.)

According to a White House statement, the retailers’ commitments come as part of Michelle Obama’s campaign to reduce childhood obesity. The new and expanded retail stores, along with a $200 million fund to finance healthy foods projects in California, will reach 23.5 million Americans. That includes 6.5 million children who live in low-income areas that lack stores likely to sell affordable and healthy foods. Studies have shown that limited access to healthy food choices can lead to poor diets, higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases.

"The commitments we’re announcing today have the potential to be a game-changer for kids and communities all across this country," said the first lady in a statement.

A 2010 report published by PolicyLink and The Food Trust found African Americans were nearly four times as likely to live in a food desert as whites.

The largest partnership announced was with Walgreens, the nation’s largest drugstore chain operating 7,773 stores nationwide–45 percent of those are in "underrepresented" communities, the White House said. Walgreens has committed to converting at least 1,000 stores into "food oasis" stores.

"We can give people all the information and advice in the world about healthy eating and exercise," Obama said in her statement, "but if parents can’t buy the food they need to prepare those meals because their only options for groceries are the gas station or the local minimart, then all that is just talk. Let’s Move is about giving parents real choices about the food their kids are eating, and today’s announcement means that more parents will have a fresh food retailer right in their community–a place that sells healthy food, at reasonable prices, so they can feed their families the way they want."

In addition to Walgreens, the White House described commitments made by two other national chains–SUPERVALU and Wal-Mart–and a handful of regional retailers. Wal-Mart’s plans will no doubt be greeted with mixed emotions. The chain commits to opening as many as 300 more stories in rural and urban areas–hardly a welcome announcement to the local-level labor and economic development advocates that have worked hard to stop Wal-Mart’s expansion. 

Michelle Obama’s willingness to work with Wal-Mart as part of her obesity campaign has drawn criticism in the past. As Juell Stewart wrote for Colorlines.com earlier this year,

Other critics say that by teaming up with corporate giants like Wal-Mart, the first lady risks undermining activism on other issues, like fair labor practices in communities of color that are increasingly dependent upon service sector jobs. At what point are these companies working in their own best interest at the detriment of consumers? The answer isn’t a simple one, but one thing is clear to those working on food equity: You’ll get nowhere without engaging industry.

"Hating the food industry is not an option," says Shiriki Kumanyika, a public health advocate and scholar at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the African American Collaborative Obesity Network. "The question is, how do you work with the food industry so that they can make a profit, but still sell us food that is more likely to promote health and less likely to promote obesity?"