One year in: Update on a Top White House Food Story, 2011...
First Lady Michelle Obama declared "victory for folks all across this country" when she joined Walmart executives last January to unveil the company's Nutrition Charter, a series of pledges to support the Let's Move! childhood obesity campaign. Efforts to fulfill the pledges are now well under way, according to Leslie Dach, Walmart's Executive Vice President for Corporate Affairs. Consumers are already seeing changes in stores, Dach said.
The company is Mrs. Obama's largest private partner, and Dach joined Mrs. Obama in Washington, DC to unveil the five-year plan that includes pledges to build markets in food deserts, work with suppliers to reformulate thousands of food products, reduce the price point for fruit and vegetables, and create a front-of-pack nutrition label for food products. (At top: Mrs. Obama speaking during the launch event)
"It’s a victory for parents. It’s a victory for families. But most of all, it’s a victory for our children," Mrs. Obama said.
Walmart is the world's largest grocer with more than 140 million American shoppers weekly, and controls about 33% of the US grocery sector. Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), the foundation that supports the Let's Move! campaign, is monitoring the commitments from Walmart and all other corporate partners, which sign Memos of Understanding detailing their pledges. To date, PHA has released no formal report on Walmart's progress, but Dach announced Walmart's achievements for 2011 when he spoke at PHA's inaugural national childhood obesity summit. (Dach, above)
"We pledged to work with our suppliers to reformulate thousands of everyday foods, to reduce sodium and added sugars, and to remove all industrially produced trans fats," Dach said. By 2015, that means reducing sodium content by 25%, and sugar by 10% in national food brands and Walmart's Great Value private label brand in "key product categories."
"Our customers are already seeing those changes reflected in the products they can buy on our shelves," Dach said.
Empowering parents to make informed choices about food is one of the five pillars of Mrs. Obama's childhood obesity campaign, but federal agencies have failed to create a uniform front-of-pack nutritional labeling standard. So Walmart has pushed ahead with its own project, as have many major food and beverage corporations and many grocery chains. Walmart's front-of-pack "healthful seal" will "roll early next year," Dach said.
"We've been having conversations across the spectrum of the nutrition community...about what the criteria for a healthful seal should look like," Dach said. "We're running options through those criteria right now, to make sure they work in the real world and that all the products that eventually carry that seal deserve it."
"We believe that this tool will help our customers put affordable healthy food on their kitchen tables and in their kids' lunch boxes."
Walmart's efforts to drop its price point on fruit and vegetables has already started, Dach said.
"We committed to save our customers a billion dollars every year on fresh fruits and vegetables," Dach said. "We are well on track to meet that goal."
The company has announced that it will be purchasing from "local" farmers for some of its stores, in theory saving millions of dollars in handling and transportation costs. Other details on how that billion-dollar savings will be enacted remain murky.
In July, Dach joined Mrs. Obama at the White House to re-announce that the company will open 275 to 300 stores in food deserts by 2016, helping to meet the First Lady's goal of eliminating all US food deserts by 2017. More than half of Walmart's food desert stores will be new, with the remainder being "expansions or re-locations."
"We've opened twenty of those stores already," Dach said.
In September, Walmart's foundation arm awarded a $1 million grant to Milwaukee's Growing Power, to help fund urban farming projects and education efforts in an effort to eradicate food deserts.
As he gave his update, Dach also revealed a very interesting statistic.
"A very significant percentage of all SNAP dollars are spent in Walmart stores, in some states up to fifty percent," Dach said.
The government spent $75.3 billion on SNAP (Food Stamps) benefits for more than 46.3 million recipients in FY 2011, the US Department of Agriculture announced this month.
"One of the challenges we all share is to help people put their SNAP dollars to a better and more nutritious use whenever they can," Dach said. "Even on the tightest budget, we can encourage healthier options."
The SNAP program allows recipients to purchase cakes, cookies, ice cream, chips, soda, and other less-than-healthy foods with benefits.
Dach ended his update by praising Mrs. Obama for inspiring Walmart to step up its efforts to offer "Walmart moms" the best scenario for feeding their families healthy foods.
"The First Lady has taken on an issue that many people said was too complicated or too politically charged to make a difference," Dach said. "But she put it front and center and she has gotten business and government and civil society to work together with new urgency and a new sense of purpose."
"It's an honor to be working alongside her."
Supermarket News this year named Mrs. Obama to its 2011 "Power 50" list thanks to the massive outpouring of support she's gotten from private sector grocers. The Packer, a produce industry media outlet, this week named Mrs. Obama the top newsmaker for produce for 2011.
Dach also praised Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initatives Sam Kass, the point man for the Walmart partnership, for his leadership.
"Sam provides optimism, passion, and a charming relentlessness to cause everyone he works with to dig deeper and accomplish more," Dach said.
In May, 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.
Though corporations partnering with the Let's Move! campaign sign Memos of Understanding with PHA, there are no legal ramifications if they fail to fulfill their pledges.
Related: Read this pocket guide to the Let's Move! campaign, which explains the five pillars that constitute the Administration's childhood obesity initiatives. Download the full White House Childhood Obesity Task Force Report [PDF]
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama