[Updated] Michelle Obama Announces Retailers Will Expand Into Food "Deserts"

The First Lady and elementary school students tend the White House garden
The First Lady and elementary school students tend the White House garden
Samantha Appleton/White House

Update 11:50 a.m. 7/20/2011 - Mayor Manuel Lozano spoke before Obama about his work in Baldwin Park, along with James Gavin III, chairman of the Partnership for a Healthier America's Board of Directors. "We know this isn't going to be easy -- nothing we do ever is -- we cant just throw money at this problem, and it wont be solved by government alone, or businesses alone, or communities alone," said Obama, a few minutes into her speech, which was directed towards an assembled group of grocery store employees as well as elected officials and reporters. "If we want to make a difference. . .we all have to find a way to do our part. No child should be consigned to a life of poor health because of the neighborhood he or she lives in. . .Today isn't just a celebration; it's a call to action."

With her announcement at the White House this morning, Michelle Obama's campaign to end childhood obesity took its next step. In an effort to give more people access to healthy foods, the First Lady revealed to the gathered food industry experts, city officials, and press corps that several large retailers, including Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and Supervalue, will be opening or expanding 1,500 stores in parts of the country lacking access to fresh produce and other healthy foods, eventually reaching close to 40% of the citizens living in these areas. As you might recall, back in January, Wal-Mart executives promised to cut back on sodium and sugar in many of the retail chain's products and lower prices on produce.

Map of "food deserts" in the United States
Map of "food deserts" in the United States
USDA

The facts are devastating. Nearly 24 million Americans (including almost 7 million children) don't live within striking distance of supermarkets likely to sell affordable and nutritious foods like fresh vegetables and whole grains. It's a health access issue, not a life-style choice. Though education has to play a major role, these communities -- known as food deserts (not desserts) -- suffer from disease and obesity (and live shorter lives) in large part because the affordable food they can get in their low-income neighborhoods happens to be corn syrup-logged and fattening.

We asked local registered dietitian Augustus Mosca for his perspective. Mosca has worked in some of the Los Angeles area's poorer communities, including Watts, and has encountered high rates of diabetes, obesity, and pulmonary disease. The unavailability of markets selling healthy food, he says, is one major cause: "Drive down a boulevard in Santa Monica and you see grocery stores -- Trader Joe's, Whole Foods. Here you have Payless and bodegas selling liquor and cheap processed food."

Because Wal-Mart is big enough to swallow other grocery chains like sliders, its policies do influence how people eat and how the manufacturers on which it relies choose to formulate their products. Whether or not partnering with Wal-Mart is the answer, the First Lady's announcement suggests she's convinced doing so is an answer.


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