Last Tuesday, I shared an article from the New York Times regarding this lovey-dovey new arrangement that Wal-Mart and First Lady Michelle Obama came up with for cleaning up the company’s offerings, so that “healthier food” is made more available to the public. The timing, for Wal-mart, was perfect because it was the prelude to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines that were just shared with the public Monday.

Great.

Don’t get me wrong. If Wal-mart is pledging to make its produce less expensive without shafting the farmers on their cut – and sticking to that – then I am glad. However… I’d be remiss in ignoring the fact that there’s a couple of parts of this entire situation that trouble me.

For starters, this:

“We’re not just aligning ourselves with one company; we’re aligning ourselves with people who are stepping up as leaders to take this country to a healthier place,” said Sam Kass, the White House chef who doubles as Mrs. Obama’s top adviser on matters of nutrition.

“There’s no qualms about that,” Mr. Kass said. “The only question that we have is do we think this is a significant step in that direction, and do we think there is a method in place to track progress, and do we think this will have the impact we are pushing for.”
Excerpted from What Do You Think? Walmart Making Healthier Eating Cheaper? | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

Compare his concerns to this, from Appetite For Profit:

Does anyone remember how McDonald’s promised to stop using trans fats, but oops, didn’t? Or how about the time Ruby Tuesday’s promised to list nutrition facts on its menus until they decided that wasn’t working out so well. And then there’s the soda industry, which has made so many broken promises, it’s hard to keep up. The biggest one was in 2006 when Bill Clinton announced a deal (also secretly brokered) in which soda companies promised to change the beverages they sold in schools. While industry claims mission accomplished, recent research suggests otherwise. But all that was before Michelle Obama’s time I guess.

[…]

Walmart is first and foremost accountable to those shareholders who own their stock. In other words, if less salt and less sugar also means less stock value, bye-bye Mrs. Obama and hello salt and sugar. The White House says that the Partnership for a Healthier America will track the success or failure of Walmart’s efforts, but what are the criteria or outcome measures? How are they developed? [source]

My beef isn’t with Walmart – recognize a few things, here. It is common practice for an entity – corporation or otherwise – to make a promise, get within the good graces of the public, then fall short on following through. If you are a registered voter, it’s pretty likely that you’re familiar with this practice.

What’s particularly interesting, here, is that the White House would allow a public face of a government movement to be used to promote a company’s “promise.” Especially considering the precedents that have already been set. Especially to have the audacity to question – after the fact – whether or not they can even measure Wal-mart’s progress or whether or not this will even have the effect they desire (and more on that, later.)

We also need to talk about the halo that Michelle Obama’s presence just gave Walmart’s efforts, here. What is a halo?

The halo effect is a cognitive bias whereby the perception of one trait (i.e. a characteristic of a person or object) is influenced by the perception of another trait (or several traits) of that person or object. An example would be judging a good-looking person as more intelligent.

When we think of Michelle Obama lately, we think of gardens, school lunch, “Let’s Move!”… all that. The public assigns this “she’s trying to convert us all to being healthy” halo to her, and therefore everything she aligns herself with therefore is assigned an “surely this is healthy, otherwise Michelle Obama wouldn’t be associated with it” halo. To believe that Walmart isn’t benefitting from that right now would be naive. Aligning herself – personally – with Wal-mart in this fashion passes on a halo to a corporation that hasn’t even done anything yet... and what they offered up as ideal? Questionable at best.

The plan, similar to efforts by other companies and to public health initiatives by New York City, sets specific targets for lowering sodium, trans fats and added sugars in a broad array of foods — including rice, soups, canned beans, salad dressings and snacks like potato chips — packaged under the company’s house brand, Great Value.

In interviews previewing the announcement, Wal-Mart and White House officials said the company was also pledging to press its major food suppliers, like Kraft, to follow its example.
Excerpted from What Do You Think? Walmart Making Healthier Eating Cheaper? | A Black Girl’s Guide To Weight Loss

Here, at BGG2WL, I say one thing loud and clear – the problem with processed foods isn’t just the added salt and the added sugars. It’s the processing in and of itself. No government official or representative is going to say that and potentially piss off the ginormous food industry, though.

Our processed foods are broken down to their most basic parts, mixed in with preservatives (which help, you know, preserve the final product), flavor additives, water, flour, various forms of salt, then manipulated to be whatever they want to sell us. The same ground up chicken carcass (which is what is in that photo) can be chicken patties, chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, “diced chicken,” the chicken in your chicken pot pie, the chicken in your soup… whatever. Just look for “mechanically separated [animal] parts.” You won’t have to look too hard.Once it’s broken down to create this… goo… chemicals are used to hold it in place to form whatever shape it’s going to take. Once it meets your saliva and enters your body, it breaks right back down to the goo… with no fiber inside to help push it out. It essentially deflates inside of your system, making it easier to consume more calories because you’re “not full yet.” Couple all of this with the fact that it takes approximately 20 minutes for your brain to get the signal from your digestive system that you’re “full,” and you start to see why a food that breaks down this quickly is a recipe for disaster – a breaded chicken breast on wheat bread breaks down much more slowly than a chicken patty sandwich on white bread, takes longer to chew (buying you time until that 20 minute mark… see what that 30 bites was important?), takes longer to digest (thus leaving you feeling fulfilled longer), and keeps you from overindulging. You’re getting that “full” feeling for less calories. You’re not scarfing it down because it’s breaking down faster than it can fill you up… only to find that “all-of-a-sudden-I-feel-like-I-ate-too-much” feeling arrive.

So, Michelle Obama pretty much just aligned her “healthy eating” image with food that is still over-processed.

But what about the salt and sugars? Those will be limited, now!

You know how I often explain that change, for the public, will not come without an increase in both education and access to resources like well-grown produce and meats? Let me be frank about it. If you buy your same processed food, cook it, go to taste it and find that it isn’t quite as salty as you’d like… without thinking, what are you going to do?

You’re going to add the salt yourself. Why? Because no one told you the problem with using too much salt. The reduction was done for you without educating you on why the reduction is better for you.

Same with sugars. Reduce the sugar? By all means, go for it! If it’s not sweet enough, surely the sugar shaker can’t be too far out of reach. Surely, there’s another brand that meets my taste needs. I don’t understand why my sugar was adjusted in the first place… so I’ll just adjust it right back.

The idea of a corporation deciding FOR you what is healthy is supposed to “make it easier for you” to buy their products. The idea of that corporation “making it healthier” for you is supposed to prevent you from realizing that the original products you were purchasing were never healthy in the first place… and perhaps you should spend your money elsewhere… and First Lady Obama just attached her healthy living initiative to all of this.

I seem really difficult to please, right? I mean, I should just be happy with what’s being done so far, right? Nope. I’m simply not budging.

From Food Fight:

Walmart also isn’t doing anything new here. The food industry is already committed to taking some “bad stuff” out of packaged food. The major companies have already removed most of the trans fat from their product. Many of them have set targets for reducing sodium, and collectively they’ve promised to take out 1.5 trillion from their products calories by 2015 (also a Michelle Obama-backed pledge).

So having Walmart breathe down their necks on this front isn’t likely to accomplish much.

The idea of making fruit and vegetables more affordable could actually make a dent in the obesity problem by helping Americans to eat healthier. Too bad neither Walmart nor Obama seem to want to address the root causes of why whole foods like fruit and vegetables are often more expensive than comparatively unhealthy, processed foods.

How to make fresh, healthy food cheaper

That would require talking about our outdated system of farm subsidies, which rewards the growers of the commodity crops that go into processed foods and ignores the farmers that grow carrots, apples and broccoli. The idea that this system is badly misaligned with public health goals is becoming more and more mainstream, and anyone that wants credibility in the obesity battle should be taking this on.

We know what the answers are. Politics is causing people to make less than genuine statements, less-than-genuine promises and lend the halo that we gave them to less-than-scrupulous companies. I’d much rather Walmart focus on the “making healthier products (and who decides what’s “healthy?”) more affordable” and “decreasing the cost of produce” than anything else. This all just feels like grandstanding, to me.

In the future, I’d love it if First Lady Obama’s efforts were centered around increasing access and education… not this. This just feels beneath her, and she’s more to me than just a giant metaphorical “Now with less sodium!” sticker on a Wal-mart store.