Why wal-mart got it right

Even the most strident public health advocates cautiously welcomed Wal-Mart’s plan to slash produce prices and reformulate its private-label processed foods to cut sodium and added sugars. Still, on and off the record, they worried. Where were the details about the discounted produce? Did the company really need five years to reformulate packaged foods? Would the cuts – 25 percent on sodium and 10 percent of added sugars – be enough?

Source: Wal-Mart

As a reporter in Washington, I might have given weight to such concerns about the company’s timetable and pace of change. In the national debate, it’s all about keeping score. But after several months of reporting on how people eat and why they make the choices they do, I think Wal-Mart’s plan strikes just the right balance.

First, the five-year timetable: Sodium, in particular, is difficult to cut from recipes because it fundamentally affects flavor, and there is no obvious substitute as there is for oil and other fats. But the schedule also gives Wal-Mart customers a chance to adjust their palates to new products. Americans are used to certain foods tasting a certain way and they are attached – very attached — to those tastes. A case in point: one young mother in Huntington, West Virginia, who is teaching herself to cook in an effort to wean her family off processed foods, told me she won’t make homemade mac-and-cheese. It tastes wrong somehow, too eggy. “It’s just not boxed mac-and-cheese,” she says. “And sometimes that’s what you want.”

Suggestions that cuts to sodium and sugar don’t go far enough also miss the point. What people eat is intensely personal, and Americans have made it clear that they don’t want anyone telling them what to do – a sentiment that conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin have attempted to exploit in recent months. If Wal-Mart had promised to slash sodium and sugar by 50 percent, some shoppers—prompted by the Nanny-State demagoguery from the right’s culture warriors—would have rejected the products on principle.

Based on what I’ve heard from the people in West Virginia, what Americans want is significant but imperceptible changes to the foods they eat—and that’s if they want any change at all. Because most of them like what they are getting to eat, even if they know it isn’t necessarily the best thing for them. It’s what they are accustomed to. Whatever you think of Wal-Mart, there’s no denying the retail behemoth knows how to serve its customers.

It’s the role of the public health advocate to push for more, faster. But from where I’m sitting, such concerns can sound tone deaf. This is where Americans shop. More important, this is how Americans like to shop: 24-hours a day, with seemingly limitless options, all at cut-rate prices. Here in Huntington, one of the main obstacles to establishing successful farmers markets is not a lack of demand or high prices but the limited days and hours they operate. “It’s a Wal-Mart world, 24/7, get it when you want it. That’s what everyone wants,” Ken Bolen, who ran the city’s main market for 10 years, told me.

Of course, there are still questions that need to be answered. What about those produce discounts? On a recent trip to Wal-Mart, produce prices already were significantly lower than they are in the local grocery store. (Red peppers, $1.68 versus $2.49 at Kroger.) Would a small additional discount be enough to persuade shoppers to change their habits? Who will ensure that Wal-Mart follows through? Michelle Obama has served as a catalyst for change in public and private-sector health and nutrition policies. Yet, even if the Obamas win a second term, they will be headed for the door by Wal-Mart’s 2015 deadline for change.

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  1. Posted January 21, 2011 at 10:46 AM | Permalink

    You make some great points!! Thanks, Jane!!

  2. Posted January 22, 2011 at 1:46 PM | Permalink

    I think that people’s desire to keep familiar tastes will still keep them on the path of purchasing processed foods, versus changing their diets to purchase more accessible, lower priced produce. But maybe these large box stores can make a difference with these types of changes and encourage even the unhealthiest to take a closer look at what they feeding their bodies. Great article!

  3. Posted January 22, 2011 at 3:32 PM | Permalink

    Wal-Mart, for all it’s might and size, could do a heck of a lot more than the lukewarm plan it presented.

    The main problem with cheap food vs healthy food is the subsidies, not the supply chain logistics. Imagine if Wal-Mart put all its weight behind changing the farm bill to shift subsidies from corn and soy to green veggies and fruits…

    more thoughts on the fooducate blog: http://bit.ly/eCssjx

  4. Posted January 23, 2011 at 8:07 PM | Permalink

    Good insight. I was thinking about you the other day and wondering how you were adjusting to life in West Virginia. Wishing you all the best!

  5. BNightengale
    Posted January 24, 2011 at 10:01 AM | Permalink

    I worry, where will the produce price cuts come from? Certainly not from WalMarkts bottom line? Likely the impact will be felt most by the farm workers? Already underpaid (to say the least), treated poorly (an understatement), and overworked…. will they now be paid even less or work longer days in order that their bosses can sell product even more cheaply?

  6. Posted January 24, 2011 at 10:07 AM | Permalink

    I think those are legitimate concerns — which is why I tailored my comments specifically to the cuts to sodium and sugar which I think are unarguably good. On the cuts, Wal-Mart says they will not take the money from farmers but…Corby Kummer, who has followed Wal-Mart’s actions closely for the Atlantic, says that there might not be greater cuts. They might be referring to the already-lower prices they offer. Food reformers need to watch this very closely.

  7. d
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 1:29 AM | Permalink

    “Do you know what a food desert is? Chances are you’re living in one…”

    Find out all about it on this week’s Walmart Report! http://www.facebook.com/walmartNYC/posts/144155005654526


    The Walmart Report | April 27th, 2011

  8. d
    Posted April 29, 2011 at 1:35 AM | Permalink

    Wal-Mart shoppers running out of money – Apr. 27, 2011

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Saveur, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.