White House support of Wal-Mart food initiative shows new tone toward retailer

Michelle Obama's collaboration with Wal-Mart is the latest step in a campaign for health and fitness that has included planting gardens, playing soccer and hula-hooping on the White House lawn.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 3:18 PM

Four years ago, leading Democrats were virtually at war with Wal-Mart.

Two prominent groups funded in part by labor unions were aggressively attacking the company for not paying its workers enough, as were several Democratic presidential candidates. Then-candidate Barack Obama pointedly declared he would not shop at Wal-Mart, and his wife resigned from the board of a Wal-Mart vendor called Tree Foods.

But now Democrats - or at least the Obamas - have shifted away from primarily casting Wal-Mart as the symbol of corporate greed, and are instead finding common cause with the low-price retail giant.

That was clear Thursday as first lady Michelle Obama appeared with Wal-Mart executives to announce that the chain will offer more healthful foods and push its suppliers to do the same. In announcing the initiative, Obama praised the Arkansas-based retailer, saying, "When I see a company like Wal-Mart launch an initiative like this, I feel more hopeful than ever before."

The joint announcement is the latest step in the first lady's efforts to curb childhood obesity. Last year, she launched "Let's Move," her signature initiative. Aides said that even before she rolled out the program, her staff was in talks with Wal-Mart, which had reached out to the White House, about joining her healthful foods push.

In endorsing the Wal-Mart initiative, the administration is allying itself with a company that has long been accused by liberals of opposing allowing its workers to unionize, paying low wages and not offering its workers enough benefits.

East Wing aides said that the first lady's involvement doesn't amount to an endorsement of a single company but instead reflects her support for Wal-Mart's commitment to expand the availability of food options and lower food costs.

"The first lady is not getting behind a specific company, we are supporting all leadership on this issue," aid Sam Kass, assistant White House chef and coordinator of food initiatives. "The first lady's guidance from Day One was whoever is serious about this issue has a seat at our table. After a year of conversation, we are convinced that they are serious and that today's announcement will have a substantial impact. This is real change for real people. We are obviously conscious about where we walk and who we walk with, but it was clear that this is potentially transformative, and the first lady is focused on solving these serious issues facing our nation."

Jennifer Stapleton, the assistant director of Making Change at Walmart, a campaign run by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said that President Obama's overall position on Wal-Mart remains unchanged.

"It is clear that Mrs. Obama and the president have a real commitment to increasing health for our nation's children. But beyond that, I wouldn't read much into this as an endorsement of Walmart's business practices or expansion plans," she said in a statement. "President Obama has been very clear about workers' rights to organize in this country and has named Walmart as one of the companies that has suppressed those rights."

In a subsequent statement, she said, "If the Obama administration is serious about creating good jobs in this country - jobs that can expand the middle class, instead of state Medicaid rolls - then it needs to use its bully pulpit to challenge Walmart and other corporations to be more responsible employers."

Wal-Mart itself has shifted its approach. The company's political activity was once mostly limited to opposing greater regulation of business, but they have shifted to the left in recent years, boosting green products, and even backing parts of President Obama's health-care overhaul last year.

It is unusual for a first lady to align herself so strongly with a private, for-profit company. But Michelle Obama has worked with the Grocery Manufacturers Association in calling for better packaging, choices and labeling for foods marketed to kids.

Also, her alliance with Wal-Mart - the nation's largest grocery store, a corporation that can decide how products are packaged and sold - allows Obama to exert great influence in an area of concern to her. The company is also increasingly moving into urban areas, where commercial blight has led to the problem of "food deserts," where few grocery and food options are available.

Asked on Thursday if the president would shop at Wal-Mart now, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that "we're all in a different time" and that the company has "taken some dramatic steps in how they're dealing with food."

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