By Debbi Wilgoren and Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 1:49 PM
First lady Michelle Obama joined Wal-Mart executives at a Southeast Washington community center Thursday morning to announce a campaign by the low-priced retail giant to offer more healthful foods and push its suppliers to do the same.
In a glowing endorsement of the type that first ladies have rarely, if ever, made of major corporations, Obama called Wal-Mart's effort "a huge victory for folks all across this country" and said it has the "potential to transform the marketplace."
"When I see a company like Wal-Mart launch an initiative like this, I feel more hopeful than ever before," said Obama, who has made fighting childhood obesity and increasing nutritious food options in poor neighborhoods a top priority. "We can improve how we make and sell food in this country."
Wal-Mart, which recently announced plans to open its first stores in the District, unveiled the healthful food initiative at THEARC, a community center that offers a nutritious eating program to residents from surrounding neighborhoods.
Officials said Walmart will make thousands of the packaged food items that it sells more healthful and affordable by 2015; build more stores in underserved areas and increase its charitable donations to nutrition programs. The plan includes reducing sodium and sugar in some foods, lowering prices on produce and developing a logo so customers can more easily identify healthful items.
"No family should have to choose between food that is healthier for them and food they can afford," Bill Simon, president and chief executive of Walmart U.S., said in a statement posted on the company's Web site. "With more than 140 million customers each week, Walmart is uniquely positioned to make a difference by making food healthier and more affordable to everyone."
Several smaller food companies have made similar efforts. But as the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart stands in a unique position to influence the practices of its more than 60,000 suppliers.
Historically, the chain has used its heft to squeeze costs out of its merchandise and offer lower prices. More recently, however, the company has attempted to employ its vast economies of scale to a host of hot-button social issues, such as environmental sustainbility and the cost of health care.
Wal-Mart has moved to eliminate waste in its stores and make its fleet of trucks more fuel efficient. It lowered the cost of generic prescription drugs and has been a proponent of electronic health records. Each move by the retailing behemoth creates a ripple effect, as manufacturers and its competitors race to meet each new bar.
Obama said Wal-Mart's announcement was a sign that her signature "Let's Move" campaign is gaining traction among businesses, families and governments.
"When healthier options are finally affordable, that can affect every meal a child eats," she said, standing before a mock produce counter on the stage of the community center's auditorium. "All these small changes can start to make a big difference in our children's health."
Wal-Mart has drawn criticism from advocacy groups in the District and elsewhere because of its anti-union policies.
Obama resigned from the board of a Wal-Mart vendor in 2007, days after her husband - then vying for the Democratic presidential nomination - said he would not shop at the store.