Grocery Retailers Advance Michelle Obama’s Healthier Food Goals

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Earlier this year Walmart pledged to step up in First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to help America eat healthier.

Now, the mega-retailer is joining the First Lady’s journey, crossing America’s “food deserts” along with some of its largest U.S. competitors (including Supervalu and Walgreen) in a pledge to make transform them to “food oases.” 

All three chains committed to opening stores in parts of the country where people lack access to fresh produce and meats, which according to Supervalu data, is more than 23 million people, including more than 6 million children.[more]

The 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,” stated Michelle Obama. 

“We can give people all the information and advice in the world about healthy eating and exercise, 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.”

Walmart has opened 218 stores in designated “food deserts” since 2007, and plans to open 275 to 300 more stores by 2016. 

“The first lady’s efforts in these areas have helped focus our real estate process, to take a particular look at these areas as we build out our real estate plans,” said Leslie Dach, EVP corporate affairs at Walmart.

Supervalu operates 400 stores in underserved areas including five newly opened ones on Chicago’s South Side. “What’s new for us is committing very publicly with the Partnership for a Healthier America and the first lady to 250” new stores in food deserts, CEO Craig Herkert told Reuters. 

Walgreen, the nation’s largest drugstore chain, will convert or open at least 1,000 “food oasis” stores by 2016, adding to the more than 45% of Walgreen’s existing stores in areas with limited access to fresh food, said CEO Greg Wasson in a statement.

“We’ve always been committed to communities and the role of the community pharmacy,” said Rachel Bishop, divisional vice president for strategic planning and analysis in Walgreen’s merchandising division. 

By adding fresh produce, Walgreen’s is “serving the community by giving them access to products (that) help support their health and wellness goals.”

Traditionally, “food deserts” are avoided by retailers because it’s hard to operate in such locations profitably. 

Walmart’s Dach, in a briefing with reporters, said recent research shows “we can serve customers and shareholders at same time. As people look at Walmart they see a set of benefits—access to healthy food, jobs and contributions to the local revenue base. It is that combo we see as making us a benefit.” 

At  the White House press conference, Dr. James Gavin, chairman of the Partnership for a Healthier America, said “these retail commitments will serve 10 million people and provide jobs for tens of thousands.” 

With the recent passing of Betty Ford, and the very public legacy she leaves, it’s a potent reminder of the power First Ladies wield.

Kudos to Michelle Obama and her partnership with America’s grocery retailers that’s greening food deserts where it’s needed most.

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