Can Walmart Help With Healthy Eating?

Walmart President and CEO Bill Simon and First Lady Michelle Obama announce Walmart initiative on healthy foodsBig business and politicians aren't strangers, but when the First Lady and Walmart, the world's largest retailer, stand together and announce a plan to offer a healthy eating initiative and at less cost, it's a bit more than simple rhetoric.

Walmart says it will reformulate thousands of its Great Value branded packaged foods to reduce sodium by 25% and added sugars by 10%. It will reduce or eliminate premium pricing on many key "better for you" items such as reduced sodium, sugar or fat products. Walmart is linking this new program the First Lady's "Let's Move" campaign.The impact will be measurable, but the plan doesn't stop there.

Walmart will also develop a seal for the front of packages to help identify healthier options like whole grain cereal, whole wheat pasta or unsweetened canned fruit. There will also be efforts to increase store expansion into areas considered "food deserts," thus making fresh, affordable food more available.

"No family should have to choose between food that is healthier for them and food they can afford," Bill Simon, president and CEO of Walmart U.S., said in a statement. "With more than 140 million customer visits each week, Walmart is uniquely positioned to make a difference by making food healthier and more affordable to everyone. We are committed to working with suppliers, government and non-governmental organizations to provide solutions that help Americans eat healthier and live a better life."

Because the only way to really reduce the cost of healthy items is to get producers to do the same. Walmart's announcement means it will bring the full brunt of its purchasing power to bear, pressuring manufacturers -- national brands and private label producers -- to reformulate products and reduce costs. It may be good for Americans' health and wallet, but what it will mean to manufacturers is still unknown.

The initiative also stands to benefit Walmart in some pretty important ways.

First, competition in both the grocery market and among healthy food choices is fierce. As Daily Finance writer Doug McIntyre points out, this may help Walmart compete with McDonald's, as it expands healthy menu options.

It helps Walmart compete with supermarkets, too. Walmart is the nation's biggest seller of grocery items, but the battle has certainly not ended. Target continues to expand fresh food offerings in its discount stores, and club stores like Costco are favorite choices for many consumers. Even Walgreen's is rolling out fresh food sections in some stores, mainly those it identifies as being in food deserts.

Food deserts are typically blighted urban areas where those with the least to spend have the most limited access to healthy food. Making such food available and affordable to these populations has been a rallying point for Walmart as it seeks to expand into cities like Chicago, where strong political opposition blocks stores from being built, like a hard-won new store recently approved in the Pullman neighborhood, not far from the Hyde Park neighborhood Michelle Obama calls home.
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