Two years ago Walmart unveiled its healthier food initiative, which is composed of five commitments designed to help make healthier food options more affordable and more widely available. Walmart committed to reducing sodium and sugar content in its Great Value brand products, creating a new icon to help consumers quickly identify healthier choices, saving customers $1 billion a year on healthy food, opening new stores in food deserts, and increasing charitable support for nutrition programs.

Last week first lady Michelle Obama visited a Springfield, Mo., Walmart store to help celebrate the company’s progress towards these goals. During her speech from the fresh produce section, the first lady said, “For years, the conventional wisdom said that healthy products simply didn’t sell – that the demand wasn’t there, that higher profits were found elsewhere, so it just wasn’t worth the investment. Thanks to Walmart and so many other great American businesses, we are proving the conventional wisdom wrong. Every day, with their success, these companies are showing us that what’s good for kids and good for family budgets can also be good for business."

Over the past two years, Walmart has made several important steps towards meeting the five healthier food initiative commitments, including:

  • Unveiling the Great For You icon, a front-of-label icon that guides customers towards healthier food choices
  • Reduced sugar content of private label items, including dairy, sauces and fruit drinks, by more than 10 percent, including a 12 percent reduction in yogurt
  • Reduced sodium content of private label items by 9 percent; the ultimate goal is a 25 percent sodium reduction
  • Walmart customers have saved $2.3 billion on fresh produce in the past two years, exceeding the $1 billion per year goal
  • 86 new stores serving more than 264,000 customers have opened in urban areas that were previously known as food deserts
  • $13 million in grants were awarded to promote nutrition education, cooking skills and healthy eating programs in 2012
The issue of urban food deserts is something that has interested me for years. In the mid 1990s, I visited New York City. I grew up in a small town and at the time of my visit I lived in a college town, so grocery stores and farmers markets were everywhere. When I visited New York City, I quickly discovered that there wasn’t a grocery store at every intersection. I asked my friends, both NYC natives, where they bought groceries and they took me to what they considered a market. It was part grocery store part deli, and the fresh food selection was extremely limited.

Since then, I’ve seen growing concern about urban food deserts, especially as childhood obesity rates began to rise. In a 2008 article in Environmental Health Perspectives journal, researcher Jason Gilliland provided several suggestions that could help solve the food desert issue:

  • City planners should take steps to boost inner-city populations
  • City management should offer incentives to grocery retailers
  • Farmers markets should also be offered incentives to host events in urban centers
  • Mobile farmers markets can be set up to expand a market’s reach
  • Offer weekend shuttle bus trips to supermarkets
As you can see, Walmart’s decision to focus on food deserts is a key strategy to solving this problem. The company’s commitment to open 275 to 300 new stores in urban areas by the end of 2016 will ultimately bring access to fresh fruits and vegetables as well as other low-cost healthy food choices to about 800,000 customers.

Related on MNN: USDA tool locates food deserts

Walmart and Michelle Obama celebrate healthier foods
First Lady Michelle Obama visited a Springfield, Missouri Walmart store to help celebrate the company's healthier food initiative.