Walmart's Healthier-Food Initiative: Big Enough to Combat Big Sugar?

Walmart, the world's largest retailer and largest purveyor of groceries, is stepping into the fight against obesity and food security in a big way.

Walmart, the world's largest retailer and largest purveyor of groceries, is stepping into the fight against obesity and food security in a big way.

Organizations that advocate for local businesses, like the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, say that Walmart's two-year-old healthier-food program, endorsed by First Lady Michelle Obama, is a ploy to help the company make inroads into urban areas and push out smaller food retailers. Others, such as Huffington Post business editor Jillian Berman, question whether even this huge effort is enough to wean consumers from the junk food that has become a dietary addiction.

One of the important studies cited in Mrs. Obama's Wall Street Journal op-ed piece about the initiative referenced the payoff that offering healthier, lower-calorie foods can bring to business. If other companies see the value in following Walmart's lead, there may be hope for curbing the obesity epidemic that is contributing to health disparities and soaring healthcare costs.

The program has a number of elements that should lead to healthier eating habits:

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 14.9 percent (17.9 million households) were food insecure in 2011. Food-insecure households had difficulty providing enough food for all their members. Walmart has already opened 86 stores in food deserts since 2011, using the Department of Agriculture's Food Desert Locator to pinpoint locations. The new stores serve both urban and rural areas including Atlanta, Durham, N.C., and Springfield, Mo., where Mrs. Obama spoke last week.

Food Desert Locator

The healthier-food effort is in step with Walmart's declaration late last year that 100 percent of its growth will come from multicultural customers, which includes groups, such as Blacks and Latinos, that are at highest risk for obesity—in turn putting them at risk for diseases triggered by poor nutrition, such as diabetes and heart disease. Combine that with the fact that 56.7 percent of Walmart's customers have household incomes below $50,000, and it's clear that even if the healthier-food efforts are being made for self-serving reasons, they likely will help reduce healthcare costs that currently represent about 18 percent of the GDP.

In another push to bring health awareness to its customers, Walmart last week also announced that it would be putting healthcare kiosks into 2,500 Walmart and Sam's Club stores this month. The kiosks, made by SoloHealth, will allow people to check their blood pressure or heart rate while buying their fruits and vegetables. SoloHealth said it plans to update the kiosks so that they include smoking-cessation tips, diabetes testing and programs for helping consumers enroll in health plans. Consumer advocates have raised privacy concerns about the kiosks, which ask consumers for their email addresses to send follow-up information. But if the machines are raising awareness among those who might be uninsured or not inclined to see a physician, they might just motivate consumers to take charge of their health.

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