SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Of all the Wal-Marts, in all the towns, in all the world, first lady Michelle Obama on Thursday walked into the Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market in this southwest Missouri college town where a battle has raged over whether to allow the chain to build a store in the historic downtown.
Standing in front of a picture-perfect pyramid of shiny limes, oranges and lemons, with bottles of salad dressing and bags of salad lined up behind her, Obama praised Wal-Mart for its efforts to make healthy food affordable for families. Her remarks echoed what she wrote in an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal Wednesday: Healthy food is not only good for families but good for business.
“For years, the conventional wisdom said healthy products just didn’t sell,” Obama said. “Thanks to Wal-Mart and other companies, we’re proving the conventional wisdom wrong.”
Healthier foods have generated more than 70 percent of growth in sales nationwide in recent years, she said. Of more importance to families: “In just two years, Wal-Mart has saved customers $2.3 billion on fresh fruits and vegetables.”
The chain is also working to help consumers stay healthy by cutting salt and sugar in its house brands and encouraging national brands to do the same; it’s already reduced sugar by 10 percent.
The first lady spoke to an invitation-only audience of less than a hundred people. (The members of the press, corralled in the back, almost outnumbered the rest of the audience.)
She praised Wal-Mart’s commitment to affordable healthy food: “You didn’t just dip your toe in the water, you went all in.” As part of that commitment, Wal-Mart has opened 86 new stores in “food deserts,” areas where accessibility to affordable healthy foods is limited.
The company also announced Thursday its “Great for You” icon, which will appear on more than 1,300 of its house brands of foods and beverages in U.S. stores, making it easier to identify nutritionally sound choices.
Obama cited statistics that claim 82 percent of consumers want “healthy products that fit their budget.” And sales of fresh produce, the foundation of a healthy diet, increased by 6 percent last year.
A diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables can help fight obesity, and obesity-related health issues carry a high price tag for the country: $190 billion a year. Obesity doesn’t just result in higher health care costs but causes higher rates of absenteeism and reduced worker productivity.
“That’s why businesses across America are stepping up,” she said. And she’s “more optimistic than ever” with the progress being made.
“This is not about government telling businesses what to sell and people what to buy,” she emphasized. “It’s about helping parents get by on a budget. It’s about giving kids the nutrition they need to learn and grow and fulfill their God-given potential.” She called it “a moral obligation” for businesses to step up and provide healthy food at affordable prices.
I applaud her efforts to get America’s children to eat healthy foods and exercise more. But as an ardent supporter of buying from local farmers, I’d like to see an emphasis on purchasing produce from community markets rather than corporations. Buying local is healthier, with a shorter time from harvest to table, and supports local farmers while cutting transportation costs and environmental impact.
Maybe that’s why the event felt too much like a commercial for Wal-Mart, which has come under fire nationally for its treatment of workers and locally in Springfield for its plans to build a Neighborhood Market in an historic downtown neighborhood. (No one could answer the question why Springfield got the nod as the Wal-Mart for Obama’s visit.)
Opponents in Springfield say a downtown Neighborhood Market will kill local businesses and destroy the flavor of the area, but Monday the City Council voted 5 to 4 in favor of the project. Opponents promise to continue their fight, and some even braved Thursday’s cold temperatures to demonstrate before Obama’s appearance. (Supporters of the first lady also showed up with signs proclaiming, “We love you, Michelle!”)
The First Lady reiterated she was eager to work with “any company” that wanted to make healthy food more affordable and accessible, perhaps in an attempt to steer the attention away from Wal-Mart, which is now the nation’s largest food retailer and has cornered at least one-fifth of the grocery market, according to trade magazine The Packer.
In a 2011 article, Wal-Mart was described having “expanded fresh food departments in recent years, using aggressive discounts to draw customers from traditional supermarket chains.”
I guess it’s business, and in the attempt to undercut competitors, Wal-Mart’s helping America’s families eat healthier. That is a bottom line that matters.
Just as we saw President Obama reveal his strong feelings as a father after the Newtown shooting, we saw the first lady’s passion as a mom at the conclusion of her remarks. “In the end that’s what we all care about — our kids,” she said with emotion in her voice. “And in the end we would make any sacrifice to give them the very best we can.”
Any mom – Republican or Democrat – can agree with that.
But I still couldn’t help wondering why there was a Secret Service agent positioned in front of the Fig Newtons on the cookie aisle.
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan. Follow her on Twitter at @dianareese.