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Walmart Veg-ing Out With Healthier, More Affordable Food Plan

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By Nick Wilson/Special to LAist

Walmart announced today a five year plan to provide healthier and more affordable food offerings. The nation’s largest grocer promises to reduce sodium, sugar, and fat content in its own private brand, as well as working with suppliers to improve the nutritional content of national brands. Walmart also plans to work to reduce the price of fresh fruit and vegetables while adding a seal to help shoppers identify healthier options.

First Lady Michelle Obama joined Bill Simon, President of Walmart U.S., in Washington D.C. to praise the announcement. “When 140 million people a week are shopping at Walmart, then day by day and meal by meal all these small changes can start to make a big difference for our children's health,” announced the first lady, who started the “Let’s Move!” campaign last year to combat childhood obesity.

The initiative includes a commitment to build more stores in food deserts that lack access to fresh and affordable groceries. With stores located primarily in rural and suburban areas, Walmart has struggled to expand into urban areas such as Los Angeles. According to the Financial Times, the endorsement by Michelle Obama “represents a significant boost for the retailer as it seeks to win local political support for new stores in Democrat-run cities including New York, Washington, Baltimore and Los Angeles, following a deal last summer to start opening stores in Chicago.”

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Early reactions to the news have been positive, if muted. On KCRW’s radio program To The Point, New York Times writer Kim Severson said, “Is this going to help? Probably a little. Making a processed chicken nugget have 25% less fat probably will help around the margins. But the reality is, we are still eating too much processed foods and overall, we’re eating too many calories. That really is the problem.”

Michael F. Jacobsen, Executive Director of the Center for Science and Public Interest, wrote at the Huffington Post, “The liberal in me doesn't like the idea of a company as big and as powerful as Walmart. But the scientist in me requires that I put the laudatory things that Walmart is doing on the scales as well.”

Today’s announcement is just the latest effort by Walmart to change the retailer’s public image. On Tuesday, the Walmart Foundation announced a $2 million donation to help “green” food banks, including the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. On Jan. 13, 2011, Orange County Public Schools was one of five public school districts chosen to participate in a $3 million initiative to increase breakfast consumption among schoolchildren. In Sep. 2010, Walmart announced a $1 billion initiative in Sep. 2010 to double the sale of locally sourced food.

In an interview with LAist yesterday, Chef and TV host Jamie Oliver highlighted changing attitudes towards the company. “[A]ctually, Walmart, which used to be the bad guy, is bizarrely now the good guy… We’re going to hopefully partner with them, they’re actually employing some of the activists that used to put paint up on their walls. They’re changing.”