Two interesting Wal-Mart Stores headlines hit my inbox today. The first, a National Post piece headlined “Wal-Mart makes communities fat.” The second, a New York Times piece with the headline “Wal-Mart shifts strategy to promote healthy foods.”

Though it’s unlikely that the dueling headlines were timed to coincide, the announcement of Wal-Mart’s new healthy moves seem almost a response to the news linking Wal-Mart and extra pounds. That National Post story details a study by two economists that shows when a new Wal-Mart opens in a community, the community gains weight. The National Post had this to say about the study, which was published in the “Journal of Urban Economics”:

One new Walmart supercentre per 100,000 residents meant an average weight gain of 1.5 pounds per person sometime over a 10-year period dating from the store’s opening. It also boosted the obesity rate by 2.3 percentage points, meaning that for every 100 people, two who weren’t obese ended up in that category after a superstore opened.
According to researchers, there’s no simple causation link between Wal-Mart and fat. The extra heft may be due to a whole range of reasons, ranging from lower prices for food to more leisure activities (like watching DVDs bought at Wal-Mart) to steeper price drops on processed unhealthy foods.

The study also found that people in more sparsely populated places are more likely to gain weight when a supercenter arrives, but at least in the National Post article (I didn’t pay the $31.50 to read the original study; please feel free to buy it for me before complaining,) no explicit comment is made about Wal-Mart's effect on a community’s design — specifically walkability.

Neighborhood design issues are what I suspect play a considerable role in this weight gain issue. As with most big box stores, Wal-Mart is geared towards the driver — one who’s able to buy loads and loads of cheap stuff that can all be hauled away in the trunk of a car. Many experts have said that having a Wal-Mart pop up in a community can force smaller mom-and-pop shops out of business because they can’t compete on that scale — thereby leading to less walkable neighborhoods and more driving.

And most people would agree that if you eat cheap processed food while walking less and driving more, you’re likely to get fat.

In any case, that study looked at Wal-Marts and the communities around them between 1996 and 2005 — while Wal-Mart’s healthy food announcement is brand spanking new. Just today, Wal-Mart announced — in an event attended by first lady Michelle Obama, no less — its plans to “make thousands of its packaged foods lower in unhealthy salts, fats and sugars, and to drop prices on fruits and vegetables.”

Don’t expect big changes at Wal-Mart the next time you pop in, however. It’ll be 2015 before Wal-Mart completes its transformation, according to the NY Times:

The changes will be introduced slowly, over a period of five years, to give the company time to overcome technical hurdles and to give consumers time to adjust to foods’ new taste, Mr. [Leslie Dach, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president for corporate affairs] said. “It doesn’t do you any good to have healthy food if people don’t eat it.”
Oddly, the NY Times article goes on to report that “Mr. Dach said the lower prices and food reformulations were motivated by the demands of Wal-Mart’s own customers.” To me, that kind of seems like people are ready for healthy food now, not rationed out leaf by leaf in Wal-Mart paternalistic-sounding five-year time frame.

Perhaps the economists behind the Wal-Mart and fat study will be able to do a second report from 2015 to 2020 to see if Wal-Mart’s healthy food plan changes the numbers on the scale.

But I digress, and in any case, I’m not a Wal-Mart shopper. Are you?

Also on MNN: Our food blogger asks, is it time to rethink my opinion of Wal-Mart?

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