Walmart, Michelle Obama and The Halo Effect - A Black Girl's Guide To Weight Loss

Walmart, Michelle Obama and The Halo Effect

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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.

The proud leader of the #bgg2wlarmy, Erika Nicole Kendall writes health, fitness, nutrition, body image and beauty, and more here at #bgg2wl. After losing over 150lbs, Kendall became a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition, women's fitness, and weight loss from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She now lives in New York with her family, and is working on her 4th, 5th and 6th certificates.

15 Comments

  1. shimbir

    February 1, 2011 at 2:13 PM

    Wonderful article as usual!

    This is off-topic, but I didn’t know where to send questions and I don’t have Twitter. I’m set to move in with my aunt and uncle in a few months and so far, have kept up with my diet and exercise regime. While looking for jobs and considering grad school, I want to continue my progress. My aunt on the other hand, thinks that my newfound healthy lifestyle is a hindrance–she feels that working out in between working hours is foolish and a waste of time, not to mention that she thinks that my eating mostly veg and fruit is not akin to having a balanced diet. What do you say to family members who have these views? Have you gone through this before? How can I convince my aunt that my new lifestyle is totally in the right direction?

  2. Madame: The Journey

    February 1, 2011 at 2:19 PM

    Respectfully, First Lady Michelle is not new to processed food advocation – serving once as a well-compensated member of the Board of Directors for Tree House Foods (a processed foods supplier to Wal-Mart – the irony). I mean, you can take the woman out of the boardroom, but you can’t take the boardroom out of the woman. And this partnership – is a prime example of that. I believe it has less to do with an actual balm to obesity and illness epidemics and is more about image; Michelle’s and Wal-Mart’s:

    Michelle Obama has afforded her “halo” status to Wal-Mart, who in-turn gives off the appearance that she and those associated with the government’s ‘get healthy’ movement were pivotal in the retail conglomerate’s decision to cut back on salt, fat and sugar. Major public wins for both sides.

    And let’s face it: holding school assemblies, community rallies and gardening photo-ops weren’t going to cut it, if this cause was going to be seen as a major success. But, I would’ve gladly stuck by those smaller-scaled efforts, over this bedfellow, any day.

    Here’s to hoping they follow-through. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

    • Erika

      February 1, 2011 at 2:21 PM

      THAT is a DAMNED good point. *faints all over the place*

  3. Green Afro Diva

    February 1, 2011 at 2:20 PM

    I think that you’re jumping the gun on this one. First of all michele simon thinks that the administration is lacking leadership on this issue, but when a corporation such as this is actually put to task to offer healthier choices, then it’s still seen as suspect. I shop at Walmart sometimes and their selections are no different that what other big name grocery chains offer and yet I still come out with healthier food for my family. You can educate the public to death about what’s in their food, but for most people, they are going to eat what they want and over season their food anyway. I dont understand how you feel the FL is grandstanding and selling out on this issue if the idea is to market healthier food to low income people. Walmart’s bread and butter is cheap crap and low prices and they are taking a $1 billion dollar hit for this move. And besides, we have yet to se how this plays out in the end.

    • Erika

      February 1, 2011 at 2:27 PM

      “I dont understand how you feel the FL is grandstanding and selling out on this issue if the idea is to market healthier food to low income people.”

      You’ll need to read Madame’s comment very closely to get a better grasp on why it’s selling out. As evidenced by what was – and was NOT – said at yesterday’s dietary guidelines press conference… they know damned well what to tiptoe around, lest they piss off an industry [that has enough money to ruin someone's political career]. They also know what issues they’ll avoid EVER addressing, lest they piss off an industry [that has enough money to ruin someone's political career].

      • Green Afro Diva

        February 1, 2011 at 9:39 PM

        Because she used to sit on the board for a supplier for Walmart, suddenly she’s a corporate sellout? Or perhaps going up against a giant such as the Walmarts or say the McDonald’s of the world is a losing battle. I highly doubt that the administration is worried about pissing off Walmart of all people since everybody else seems to be pissed off at them one way or another(the HCR debacle is a prime example of this). Where does it say that she’s advocating for processed food? The food advocacy groups miss sight of this everytime. So aligning yourself with a major corporation to bring about awareness and changes accounts to selling out but doing nothing but complaining that corporations are not listening to us is…in essence selling out.

        • Erika

          February 1, 2011 at 9:47 PM

          You’re assuming that I either desire or believe a corporation needs to listen to me. I don’t.

          Look, if you think this is the move, and it proves that you’re right, I’m happy to cede you that point. I just disagree, mama. Plain and simple, for reasons I’ve already written.

          • Green Afro Diva

            February 3, 2011 at 1:13 AM

            no worries. I know that everyone is entitled to hi/her own opinion. I just thought it was stretching it imply an ulterior motive at least on the FL’s part about this deal. Let’s just see what happens before we condemn it as a failure.

          • Erika

            February 3, 2011 at 7:56 AM

            …and that’s okay. I personally feel like she is WELL aware of what the public needs to be told, and she – as WELL as the past 5 adminsitrations – is avoiding saying/doing just that for some kind of gain to the detriment of the public. I don’t care about anyone benefiting. I care about ANYONE doing so and causing the public (read: ME and people LIKE ME) to take a loss.

            Anything that stops short of making produce affordable, increasing access and decrying the use of processed foods just isn’t going to cut it for me. *shrug*

  4. Chintel

    February 1, 2011 at 2:51 PM

    I do agree that no matter what the stores sell people are going to figure out a way to make it unhealthy. Not that it was all that healthy to begin with. People need to be educated on just exactly what the food they eat is doing to thier bodies.

    I myself am a huge research geek. Im constantly on the internet and in books trying to figure out what is the true defintion of “healthy”. Since ive been doing this its really not that hard to see whats good for you and whats not. I like the saying “if you can’t pronounce its probably not natural”. Thats very true.

    I can only hope that whatever Walmart does they educate the people. Just because a label says “healthy” doesnt mean it is. Read the labels. People have gotten so lazy. If more of us would cook actual food and not ffod out of a bag already made we would be better off. I found that to be my case. Once i started cooking real food the pounds dropped off fast.

    Enough rambling for me. I think we all have hopes that Walmart does the right thing. Not getting our hopes up too high since it is a 5 yr plan and the standards are changing every minute.

    All we can do is educate ourselves and pay attention to what we eat. Keep our eyes and ears open to whats going on.

  5. JoAnna

    February 1, 2011 at 9:00 PM

    I’ve pretty much cut out most processed foods from the house. I still buy the occaissional box of multi-grain/whole wheat pasta, and staples like dried beans, cooking oil, flours (whole wheat, corn, etc), etc. The frozen veggies and fruit I buy are sugar/salt free. So if you’re already eating clean, this won’t affect you.

    I wanna know if the “new” products will contain less sodium/sugars than the old “lower sodium/sugar” products. Like will the new saltines have less salt than the current “low sodium” saltines. Will the new canned peaches, contain less sugar than the peaches in what? Water? I ate a school lunch at my niece’s school last year, and thought I’d have the bean salad and the pineapple fruit cup. The bean salad was loaded with sugar and the pineapple tasted like all the juice had been sucked out of it and replaced with water. These were the “healthy” offerings that most of the children were avoiding for the standard slice of cardboard pizza and go-gurts. I taught her how to make her own lunches that night.

    Anyway, you make a good point about folk adding their own salt and sugar to food. Those 2 condiments were historically used to preserve foods and make them taste better. Did you see that scene in the movie “Demolition Man” with Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock where they’re sitting to a formal dinner at Taco Bell? Stallone tastes his food and asks for the salt. Sandra Bullock tells him excess salt and sugar were deemed unhealthy for people and so became illegal… I’m not sayin’ that’s going to happen but a lot more has to be done than just reducing the sodium/sugar contents of processed foods. This country has to get back to plain healthy food. Period.

  6. Msladee

    February 2, 2011 at 1:50 AM

    I think it’s too early to tell if this will go wrong. I certainly don’t think Michelle O. has an ulterior motive, even if she did sit on the board of a food company’s corporation. She was on her hustle- she supported her household working like 5 jobs during that time and if she’s like most people, she probably didn’t pledge allegiance to any of them. I don’t know if I can attribute the current arrangement to that prior relationship. I DO think this may be a large and integral part of affecting how the general public gets their food. and yes, while both parties may have gain multiple benefits (why is that a bad thing?), I also believe arrangement is a step in the right direction, that being pushing the companies to rework priorities in their output and garnering public attention to the relationship between food and obesity.
    What is comes down to is whether there will be revolution or reform. Politics works through a system of reform, so that change is slow, seemingly too late and often too little. reform necessitates negotiations and concessions. Revolution is a bottom up experience. The caring 10% of the public produce the media attention, moral argument, public demand(or outrage), specificity and oversight needed to garner the strong language and execution of policies we want. Placing the responsibility of revolution in the hands of one person who’s largely a non-political figure (cause let’s be real, FLOTUS isn’t an official administrative position) is a setup for failure. That said, I give Michelle O. props for trying and largely succeeding in refocusing priorities in one of the world’s largest corporations. She got a major ball rolling.

    • Erika

      February 2, 2011 at 8:07 PM

      “I DO think this may be a large and integral part of affecting how the general public gets their food. and yes, while both parties may have gain multiple benefits (why is that a bad thing?)”

      I don’t deny that. The hierarchy of food needs post that I did a while back goes into this in detail. I’m not denying that this IS a big deal, nor did I begrudge them their credit for what this has the potential to do.

      I’m STILL not budging on the fact that BOTH sides know EXACTLY what need to be done, and what BOTH sides (as well as an implied third party – food manufacturers) get is the very thing the PUBLIC suffers from – the ability to keep the public from learning, on their own, that THIS HERE? ISN’T the way to do it.

      I simply won’t budge on that. My ENTIRE site is based off of that premise. Y’all SURELY don’t expect anything different from me, right? :)

      • Danielle

        February 3, 2011 at 12:52 PM

        Excellent article :) I see everyone’s points but this topic has so many different facets.
        For one it’s Michelle Obama we are talking about and for the most part this is someone that we want to immediately defend- because its freaking Michelle Obama!
        Then we have WalMart who – for people wanting to eat healthier- has the worse reputation ever so we all skeptical about them. Mix that in with the low standard food climate here in the US and its really a hot topic.

        My take is this-the issue is more of a political one- I don’t think that this administration has the political capital to radically influence food policy drastically without an drastic backlash from the American public.

        Look at health care reform and ‘Obama’care. The Prez has been called a Nazi and a Socialist for trying to do the little that they acheived. The first point of order by the GOP was to repeal it. What would happen if there was a huge radical food policy overhaul. I can just see Sarah Palin and the like appealing to Joe Public on how the elitist Dems with their fancy organic produce want you to have a high grocery bill and turn honest ole America into socialist Europe.

        Now I do not want to excuse the current administration from their job, or absolve the fact that by Michelle O lending her name to Walmart she is giving credence to Walmart being healthy when they not. It like if WalMart was -10 on a scale of 1-10, maybe they are now 0.

        So what should be done? I think the government’s role is really in education so consumers can decide. I am saying this thinking about it politically. Maybe a GOP administration can get away with mandating certain health policy initiatives while framing it as being economically beneficial (like ‘Oh we need to ensure all sodium and fat get cut in half in 5 years because the cost to treat these people is 10 times the cost to cut it in foods to begin with). GOP can get away with that. Dems do that and theyre lambasted on the left (oh this needs to be cut by 75% not half! or ‘it needs to be cut in 3 years not 5!) and the right (this socialist administration is turning our kids into european pansies!)

        Sorry if this comment is rambling and disjointed, I’m at work, and I have been trying to finish it since about 11am :D

  7. Danielle

    February 25, 2011 at 12:37 PM

    Erika, looking at the issue you posted about Michelle Obama and Rush Limbaugh, tell me what do you think a black, democatratic First Lady can do to improve food, without getting assassinated by someone in the food industry.

    I’m not even being sarcastic here- she being verbally shamed by these nutcases for the little she is doing, if she were to step it up I honestly think they would want to do something drastic.

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