Thursday, July 21, 2011

Combating Food Deserts, Creating Jobs

First Lady unveils grocers' commitments for 1,500 markets; "tens of thousands" of jobs added to US economy...but will the plan reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity?
First Lady Michelle Obama stands out in history as the only presidential spouse to have huge private sector partnerships for her "First Lady campaigns." On Wednesday, she had a further outpouring of corporate love when some of America's largest food retailers unveiled big commitments to support the Let's Move! goal of eliminating food deserts in the next six years. Surrounded on the East Room stage by executives and employees from Walmart, SuperValu, Walgreens and a handful of regional grocers, Mrs. Obama discussed plans to build or transform about 1,500 markets in areas identified as food deserts, in theory making healthier foods, such as fruit and vegetables, more available to about 9.5 million citizens in impoverished rural and urban areas. And at "reasonable prices," Mrs. Obama said. (Above: Mrs. Obama during her remarks)

The announcement comes as a coalition of the world's biggest food makers and media companies--Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, ConAgra, Viacom, Time Warner, Kellogg's--are engaged in a pitched battle with the Obama Administration over how to market foods to children. But there was no mention of the warfare as Mrs. Obama praised her newest private sector partners.

"Make no mistake about it: This is a big deal. It is a really big deal. I think our Vice President put it better but I’m not going to use his words," the First Lady, clad in a crisp white shirtwaist dress and sparkling earrings, said to much laughter from her audience.

Mrs. Obama's Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, Sam Kass, and her Chief of Staff, Tina Tchen, stood in a doorway of the East Room, watching their boss, and joined in the laughter.

Using its Food Environment Atlas, USDA defines a food desert on the county level as an area where at least 33% of the population, or a minimum of 500 people live more than a mile from a grocery store or large supermarket in an urban area, or more than ten miles away in a rural area. Under this analysis, there are 6,500 food deserts in the continental United States; there are at least four just minutes from the White House, and many people reading these words could go "visit" a food desert with ease. 23.5 million Americans live in low income areas defined as food deserts, the White House said in its fact sheet about Mrs. Obama's announcement, and 6.5 million of these are children. In May, USDA re-tooled its analysis of food deserts and based it on Census tract data as it launched an online Food Desert Locator. USDA said that ten percent of 65,000 census tract areas are food deserts, and found that 13.5 million people live in food deserts, with 82% of the areas defined as food deserts located in low-income urban areas. (Above: An image from USDA's food desert map; the pink is food deserts)

The grocers' commitments to eradicate food deserts "have the potential to be a game-changer for our kids and for our communities all across this country," Mrs. Obama said.

Some of the grocery projects that were in the spotlight were already planned or previously announced. Walmart Executive VP of Corporate Affairs Leslie Dach, who sat behind Mrs. Obama on stage, said his company will open 275 to 300 stores in food deserts by 2016. It will impact about 800,000 customers in rural and urban areas, he said. More than half of the food desert stores will be new, with the remainder being "expansions or re-locations," Dach said.

"Expansions" means adding grocery areas to stores that didn't previously offer food items. Walmart executives joined Mrs. Obama in January to first announce their plans, as they unveiled a larger commitment to reformulate products and drop prices on healthy foods. The company is headquartered in Arkansas.

Walgreens, the nation's largest drugstore chain with headquarters in the Obama hometown of Chicago, has been adding fresh foods to locations for a couple of years, and pledged to transform 1,000 stores into "food oasis" stores, selling whole fruits and vegetables, pre-cut fruit salads and green salads as well as breads and ready-made meals, reaching an estimated 4.8 million people. President and chief executive officer Greg Wasson said that more than 45% of Walgreens stores are “located in areas that don’t have access to fresh food,” which makes the company “uniquely positioned to bring more food options to Americans." There was no announced time frame.

SuperValu, with headquarters in Minnesota, currently has 2,500 retail outlets, and pledged to build 250 Save-A-Lot stores in food deserts in the next five years. This will serve 3.75 million people, the company says. Details on the commitments from regional grocers are here.

Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), the foundation created to support Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign, arranged the corporate commitments. The participants signed Memos of Understanding detailing their pledges, which included an agreement to have their efforts "monitored" by PHA, said chairman Dr. James Gavin III (above). But the retailers will make the decisions on where the food desert stores will be located, based on the needs of the communities they will serve. Gavin hailed the partnership as a big step forward for Mrs. Obama's campaign.

"It's one thing to be told to eat your greens, but it's another thing entirely to be able to buy them," Gavin said.

"If a parent wants to pack a piece of fruit in a child’s lunch, if a parent wants to add some lettuce for a salad at dinner, they shouldn’t have to take three city buses, or pay some expensive taxi to go to another community to make that possible," Mrs. Obama said.

The commitment has no formal name, unlike other Let's Move! components that get their own branding and logo--although USDA released a Let's Move! fact sheet. And it comes with no additional program of nutrition education for shoppers. The Memos of Understanding the companies signed do specify some foods that will be sold; for instance, Walgreens' pledge includes details on what kinds of whole fresh and cut frozen vegetables the company will sell in its "oasis stores." But there's no "ban" on selling the kinds of foods that Mrs. Obama has encouraged America to eat only in moderation--chips, soda, cookies, items with high fat and salt content.

There were also no details made available about how price points will be dropped for healthier foods, such as fruit and vegetables, to make these what Mrs. Obama termed "reasonable."

Mrs. Obama and Administration officials always speak about childhood obesity as an "epidemic," and say that "one in three children is overweight or obese." But there's a difference between being overweight and being clinically obese, and the current child obesity rate hovers at 17%, depending on age category. Prevalence is far higher in non-white populations, and among those living in poverty, and thus, statistically, higher among those living in food deserts. Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign has a goal of dropping the obesity rate to just 5% by 2030.

"If we want to make a difference in this issue, we all are going to have to step up -- all of us. We all have to find a way to do our part," Mrs. Obama said on Wednesday, adding that community-level and family interventions are just as important as locating grocery stores in food deserts. Still, eradicating food deserts has been identified in the Let's Move! campaign as crucial.

"Studies have shown that people who live in communities with greater access to supermarkets eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, and they have lower rates of obesity," Mrs. Obama said, without mentioning which studies she was referencing. The Report from the White House Childhood Obesity Task Force uses studies that go back decades.

One of the largest and most comprehensive studies on food deserts to date was published this month in the Archives of Internal Medicine. It included thousands of people, and analyzed 15 years of information about youth dietary and purchasing habits in four major metropolitan areas, and found that "greater supermarket availability was generally unrelated to diet quality and fruit and vegetable intake, and relationships between grocery store availability and diet outcomes were mixed." Policy interventions such as eliminating fast food outlets through zoning, and boosting nutrition education were suggested.

In 2009, USDA issued a massive report to Congress on food deserts. A key finding: "Easy access to all food, rather than a lack of access to specific healthy foods, may be a more important factor in explaining increases in obesity." In other words, it's not so much that healthy food is unavailable, it's that junk food is everywhere, and when given a side-by-side choice, Americans choose junk food.

On Wednesday, Mrs. Obama was introduced to her audience by Josephine Grossi, a 70-year-old produce manager at a Pennsylvania Shop ‘N Save. Grossi described her practice of handing out fresh fruit instead of baked goods to children who entered her store, and said they loved it. That's a perfect example of the kind of ancillary things that need to happen in food deserts; it's not enough to just build stores.

The causal impact of food deserts on obesity is an ongoing debate among policy makers, and one of the reasons that Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign is so massive and so multi-faceted; eradicating food deserts is just part of the obesity battle pie.

The impact of the 1,500 markets on obesity rates is something that can only be analyzed years from now, especially because actually building or transforming the markets is a years-long process.

Jobs, jobs, jobs...
But the supermarket commitments Mrs. Obama announced seem to be as much about creating jobs as they are about making Americans healthier. Mrs. Obama gave an entire speech on how battling the bulge can energize the economy in March, and the Administration is very, very interested in this intersection, with grocery stores as the perfect focal point. President Obama is getting plenty of negative press for the US unemployment rate of 9.2%, and on Wednesday, White House officials--and the grocery executives--all repeatedly highlighted the jobs boost that the pledges will create. "Tens of thousands of jobs," White House officials said.

Walmart's Dach said the food desert stores would be employing more than 40,000 people. SuperValu estimated that they'll bring 6,000 new jobs.

"When these stores succeed they can serve as anchors in our communities," Mrs. Obama said. "And that, in turn, can attract other businesses to come and set up shop, which can mean even more customers and even more jobs."

"These new stores bring jobs," Gavin said.

Mrs. Obama also announced the California FreshWorks Fund, a project of The California Endowment, which has committed to securing $200 million to promote healthy food retailing in California. The public-private partnership loan fund will "create or retain" approximately 6,000 jobs, according to White House officials.

"We know that thousands of jobs are going to be created," said Melody Barnes, Director of the Domestic Policy Council, and chair of the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity. "And that's not just based on flimsy statistics."

The Food Marketing Institute this week released a report titled "Access to Healthier Foods: Challenges and Opportunities for Retailers in Underserved Areas." The report summarizes the risks and benefits of locating grocery stores in poverty areas, and describes how to get local governments to provide incentives.

Labor is not happy...
Job creation aside, those who lead the US labor movement are not happy that the White House is spotlighting the non-union Walmart. Richard Trumka, President, AFL-CIO and Joseph T. Hansen, President, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said in a joint statement that the White House Walmart partnership "undercuts the message of the need for good jobs that can rebuild our middle class," because "Walmart's business model is subsidized on the backs of American taxpayers."

Walmart has opened 218 stores nationwide in food deserts since 2007, and is currently facing stiff community opposition as it attempts to open outlets in New York City and Washington, DC.

"When Walmart opens in a community, it regularly displaces existing jobs with poverty-level jobs," Trumka and Hansen said. "Tens of thousands of Walmart associates qualify for and utilize food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid."

Mary Kay Henry, President of the Service Employees International Union, also blasted the partnership.

"We cannot ignore the reality that Wal-Mart is America’s chief corporate poverty creator," Henry said. "Wal-Mart should not be celebrated for false contributions to our communities and glitzy public relations campaigns that disguise their destructive policies."

Questioned about the Walmart criticism, Barnes brushed it off.

"Today's announcement was about addressing childhood obesity," Barnes said.

But she added "in every case we encourage communities to create labor and good jobs."

"Tens of thousands of jobs." It was the day's mantra.

The Healthy Food Financing Initiative...
In 2010, shortly after launching Let's Move!, Mrs. Obama announced the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), a fund that pools money from USDA, Health and Human Services and Treasury to offer incentives for markets to build in food deserts. Originally a $400 million initiative, it didn't get funded last year, but Mrs. Obama had good news for 2011.

"This administration is committing $35 million this year, and the 2012 budget proposes another $330 million for next year," Mrs. Obama said. It's the first time she's mentioned either dollar amount publicly, though the funding isn't new.

"HHS already announced the availability for $10 million in grants for healthy food access projects through their Community Economic Development Program," said Mrs. Obama's Press Secretary, Hannah August. "Treasury already announced the availability of $25 million through its Community Development Financial Institutions program."

The HFFI funding won't be available to Walgreens, Walmart, SuperValu, or the regional grocers who are part of the new project, August said. Still, during her remarks, Mrs. Obama pointed to the HFFI as one of the "pillars" of the Let's Move! campaign. The First Lady has an eye on the future, and on more private sector partnerships.

“The companies represented here today are only a tiny fraction of the total number of retailers in this country,” Mrs. Obama said. “And if they can step up and make these investments, then there’s absolutely no reason why every food retailer in this country can’t find some way to get involved as well.”

The HFFI has come under assault from conservative critics (one example is here).

Without mentioning the Food Giants who have railed against her efforts to improve advertising foods to children, Mrs. Obama noted that the exemplary behavior in the retail grocery world comes from having leaders who are decent human beings, with a sense of personal responsibility and patriotic mission.

"They didn’t do this just as executives who care about their company’s bottom lines -- and I’ve met these people," Mrs. Obama said. "They did it as parents and as grandparents who care about the health of our kids. They did it as leaders who care about our country’s future."

"You’re showing us that we live in a country where we do care deeply about our kids," Mrs. Obama said, adding that she was "truly proud" and "grateful."

Supermarket News recently named Mrs. Obama to its 2011 "Power 50" list thanks to the massive outpouring of support she's gotten from the private sector, the advertising battle notwithstanding. (Above: A long shot of the East Room)

"Her impact on the supermarket industry has been significant, with companies frequently invoking her name when announcing new health initiatives," noted Supermarket News.

In May, Senior Policy Advisor Kass was named to Fast Company magazine's 2011 list of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" thanks to the White House Walmart partnership. He is #11 on the list of genius executives, impresarios and artisans who are transforming the world.

The video of Mrs. Obama's remarks, as well as those of Gavin and two other guests who spoke at the event:



*The transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks is here. Dach's video about the Walmart commitment is here.

*Top photo by Samantha Appleton, all others by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama

*Updated