Why We Should Question Walmart’s Latest PR Blitz

Walmart made big news yesterday with a press conference alongside the First Lady to announce new company commitments. Most of the mainstream media coverage of the Walmart announcement seemed to buy the company PR that it was taking valiant steps to improve the affordability and health qualities of the food it sells. Among these commitments, Walmart said it will be working with food suppliers to reduce sodium, sugars, and trans fat in certain products by 2015; developing its own seal to help consumers identify healthier products; and addressing hunger by opening Walmart stores in the nation’s “food deserts.”

Do these Walmart promises really hold big upsides for health and food insecurity? The Times seemed to think so, running with this headline: “Wal-Mart Shifts Strategy to Promote Healthy Foods.” (Am I crazy or does that read remarkably like the Walmart press release: “Walmart Launches Major Initiative to Make Food Healthier and Healthier Food More Affordable”?) Had the Times been aiming for accuracy it might better have titled the article: “Walmart Launches PR Campaign Promoting Promises to Win the Hearts and Minds of Urban Consumers.”

With little critical coverage in the mainstream media, we are left to ponder the impact of these Walmart commitments ourselves. Thankfully, we have the wisdom of experts like Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and What to Eat, to shed light on these claims. (Check out her take here). One of Nestle’s most important points is that Walmart’s promise to develop its own front-of-package seal is a clever preemption of work underway at the Institutes of Medicine and FDA to “establish research-based criteria” for such packaging and create regulations for the entire industry, with real oversight.

Let’s dig deeper and look carefully at what the company is saying it is committing to doing. Specifically, Wal-Mart is pledging to “reduce sodium by 25 percent, eliminate industrially added trans fats, and reduce added sugars by ten percent by 2015” in some of the processed foods that it carries.

Impressive? Not so fast.

First, consider that it’s not unusual for a can of soup to contain as much as 2,291 mg, or more, of sodium. (For perspective, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend we consume just 1,500 mg a day). We need to reduce that sodium figure significantly more than 25 percent on many of Walmart products before we dare call them “healthy.” As for trans fats, public health advocates have long been advocating for all food producers to eliminate trans fats across the entire food supply. Finally, a 12 oz. can of Coke, for instance, bought at Walmart—and which the company notoriously pushes at steep discounts—will already contain 39 grams of sugars, the upper limit of what is often suggested as the total daily consumption for non-diabetics. In other words, Walmart’s nutritional commitments are really about making the unhealthy processed food it sells marginally better, at best; at worse, it’s offering the veneer of healthfulness to foods that should be considered bad for us.

These nutritional promises are not only weak in their aspirational goals; they’re also non-binding, which means we’ve got to take the company on its word. These nutritional promises are not only weak in their aspirational goals; they’re also non-binding, which means we’ve got to take the company on its word. (The White House’s Sam Kass has stressed that all these proposals can be verified in an “open, transparent” manner. But with Walmart’s history of backroom deals—like its lobbying with other retailers against strict meth laws—I’m dubious).

Corporate driven, non-binding promises like these are also the oldest trick in the food industry PR playbook. Just ask Michele Simon author of Appetite for Profit, who details how Pepsi, Kraft, and numerous other food companies have made similar promises and gotten  big payback with good press even though they’ve done very little to actually improve the health qualities of their products. These commitments also receive great press at first—note the windfall for Walmart—but there is little accountability over time when the changes are supposed to be made.

Now, let’s turn to the Walmart claim that the company wants to move into urban markets, and reduce the costs of some of its food items, to help low-income people access more affordable food. The New York Times writes that “that low-income people, especially those who receive food stamps, face special dietary challenges because eating healthy costs more and healthier food is harder to get in their neighborhoods.” Yet, the Times fails to mention the studies that have found that because of Walmart’s low wages and benefits, its employees rely on food stamps and other social services far more than the typical retail employee. While Walmart is spending a lot of time and money saying they plan to address food insecurity, the company is actually exacerbating its underlying root causes.

The Times also mentions that Walmart will help address food deserts, defined as “a dearth of grocery stores selling fresh produce in rural and underserved urban areas,” by building more stores, the paper didn’t quote any community-based activists addressing these so-called food deserts on the ground. Do these community advocates think Walmart is the solution? Are they happy Walmart has set its eyes on Washington DC, New York City, Chicago, and other urban markets? Of those I’ve talked to, all are skeptical of the company’s promises and highly critical of the Walmart model: the anti-worker rights, low-wage, low-benefit way of doing business.

We also have plenty of evidence now that when Walmart moves into town, the company puts small businesses out of business and sucks capital out of the community. For every dollar spent at a Walmart, only a small fraction stays to benefit the local economy. We’ve seen enough evidence, too, that the company has a long, dark track record of sex discrimination and workers rights abuses.

Let’s be clear, expanding into so-called food deserts is an expansion strategy for Walmart. It’s not a charitable move. Making a big PR splash about improving the health qualities of its food is a smart tactic to deflect attention from the real impact of Walmart on the quality of life for Americans. (Is it a coincidence that this press conference occurred the same week a new study was gaining attention that tracked health and population data and found links between Walmart expansion from 1996 to 2005 and increased rates of obesity?)

As far as I’m concerned, as long as the company depresses wages, exploits workers, violates workers rights, and pushes highly processed foods and sodas, Walmart is not only failing to address the problem of food deserts and food insecurity, the company is exacerbating their root causes.

15 thoughts on “Why We Should Question Walmart’s Latest PR Blitz

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Civil Eats » Blog Archive » Why We Should Question Walmart’s Latest PR Blitz -- Topsy.com

  2. I do not think your take on this is accurate. I do have to admit that what you state about the reduction in food percentages is a small step by Walmart, but look at it from the perspective of the company swhose products are sold through walmart. They will need to match those criteria or risk lower sales.
    That is the key, you can slam WalMart all you want, but in the end, it will start to ball rolling to create healthy food.

    Counterpoint to the wage argument; Walmart doesn’t discreminate on who it hires; thus the people who are hired are generally the low income worker, rural workers etc. Plus they get a discount with their discount card on fruits and Vegetables.

    Also, take a moment and evaluate how you are attaching WalMart. It is along similar lines of Glen Beck of Hanity going after the Left.

    I just, I wish there was a more balanced view in this regard. Give your views, then give counter views and let the ready decided what viewpoint to follow; if one is followed at all

  3. Thank you for pointing out this out, the obvious. Why doesn’t the media question corporations? (don’t answer that, I don’t actually want to know…)

    I blogged about Walmart last summer (negatively)and I was attacked over it. People love their stuff cheap. They also think it’s a great company.

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  5. Your bias is showing. Is there anything Walmart could do that would make you happy? Why hate Walmart? It seems you cannot be satisfied.

  6. First let me say that there are 2 distinct and contrasting Wal-Mart camps that are likely never to see eye-to-eye…As a former WM associate and personnel team member I can say that WM does everything it does with only 2 things in mind: profits and PR. Some may disagree, but as a former personnel team member I got to see many things behind the scenes that are not public knowledge.

    Today’s WM is *not* the company that Sam built in many aspects (and in other aspects have always been the same). There are investors, shareholders and the WM family whose profits are more important than healthier eating, good-will and charity.

    WM’s main focus right now is opening new stores while reducing overall expenses. They face staunch resistance in many urban areas and have been for many years trying different PR angles to gain public favor.

    My bet is that WM will not (and cannot) require ALL food brands to be healthier. They will focus their efforts on the Great Value brand where they can control costs. I’d put money on it…

    I do not consider them to be the evil empire that many do, but I do believe that their priorities are totally out of whack. My wish is not to see them fail, but to be better aligned with *authentic* values that better serve customers, community, associates and then the shareholders…

  7. I agree with many of the other commenters- a constant argument against Walmart completely ignores the fact that Walmart is an incredibly large part of our economy and social structure. The sooner we recognize that and start to work WITH these large corporations to show them what consumers want, the better. To simply ignore the reality of Walmart is harmful to the good food movement in the long run.

  8. Apologies for the second comment, but I did want to clarify that it is still important for Anna Lappe and others to write about Walmart’s labor policies and the truth behind their food and products. This is great reporting! But since the first inner-city Walmart is moving in to our Baltimore neighborhood of Remington in the next year or so, I have become aware that Walmart is a reality, and the sooner we fight to get them to become a better business instead of just trying to boycott them, more positive changes will be made overall.

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  10. I think we should be glad these improvements are going to occur, completely aside from WalMart’s motives.I do not shop at or support WalMart in general and much prefer to spend my money at local establishments. However, In the end, the fight isn’t with WalMart.
    Let’s focus our energy on continuing supporting farmers in our own communities, supporting non profits that work to educate low-income areas on growing food and on health. Let those of us who can actually spare the extra money on shopping local/ organic in the store or market do so, instead of prioritizing material things. Anyone you would need/want to convince to NOT shop at WalMart really needs to see and hear the other options from their local community leaders and why they are better- and sadly chances are, they aren’t browsing the net for blogs such as this.
    As far as the media reporting on anti big biz or big ag subjects, let’s not hold our breath. (I happened to see anchor Natalie Morales from the NBC Today show jump to defend the industrial meat industry after Suzanne Summers mentioned the benefits to eating only grass-fed meat and the potential health problems from eating corn fed).
    In fact, I’d be interested if anyone knew of anything special ties between specific media companies and big ag?

  11. I really enjoyed your post, although I didn’t agree with everything mentioned. Still, I found it an refreshing take on the Walmart announcement. I particularly was interested in your examples of Kraft and Pepsi that has promised similar promises but have not necessarily delivered. I would liked to hear more about them, and if anyone really held them accountable. Like many of the comments above, I think, no matter how you feel about Walmart and no matter its motives, this is a step in the right direction. Maybe it’s not a huge step, but it still is an effort to move towards healthier options. And as Walmart is one of the largest grocery stores in the country, I think that if it is actually implemented it will have an impact. Do I think we should stop pushing for healthier options from Walmart, no. But we should be able to give credit when credits due.

  12. Pingback: Civil Eats » Blog Archive » Walmart’s New Initiative and Our Health: More Harm Than Good?