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January 25th, 2011

Obama-Mart: Is the First Lady Choosing the Wrong Partner?

Michelle Obama is right to demand change, but is she asking the wrong people to lead the charge? Photo by Ben Schumin

Michelle Obama’s clarion call to fight against childhood obesity and to promote healthy, affordable food choices for children is one we can all get behind. Her alignment with Walmart, the largest grocery retailer in the U.S., could be viewed as an effort to tackle the problem directly by making positive changes to an already established system of food production and distribution. But look close enough and ask the right questions, and it’s easy to see that Walmart isn’t the solution to the problem; it’s one of the main contributors.

Our First Lady is demanding quality food to be cheap and accessible through retail stores. But, the reason healthful food isn’t more affordable now is due to things like logistical costs, shelving fees and unfair market prices that suppliers must bear thanks to retailers like — you guessed it — Wal-Mart.

Maybe a good question to ask here is, “Why is processed food so cheap and whole food items from the farm more expensive at the store?”

Big grocery retailers stand in between consumer dollars and the farmers who supply our food, mostly by exerting financial pressure on producers and eliminating fair competition among them. Retailers and other middlemen in the supply chain often keep an unfairly high percentage of the overall dollars circulating within the food system and they manipulate the market to keep their profits high, while many producers struggle.

The food that ends up having a lower price tag is food that is processed with additives and preservatives. It has lower costs associated with it because it’s less food and more “stuff.” It’s concocted to be efficient in production and distribution, but not to be nutritious.

If retailers were to reduce their high price markups and help suppliers by eliminating unnecessary fees, it could be beneficial to both producers and consumers. But if the retailers demand that the lowered prices come directly from suppliers, the suppliers will continue to be under pressure to produce food the cheap way. Those using sustainable practices and paying more for labor can’t afford to sell to Wal-Mart.

Michelle Obama is right to demand change, but she’s asking the wrong people to lead the charge. Wall-Mart and other retailers are preventing food producers from participating in this call for affordable, healthy food. Lowering the prices of healthy food could certainly be a way to help consumers, so long as the cost difference comes from the big chunk that retailers and processors are already keeping. But it could prove to be just one more cut to producers, who will continue to be under pressure to produce the cheapest way possible, which doesn’t tend to lead to food that is healthy in the long term.

4 Comments on Obama-Mart: Is the First Lady Choosing the Wrong Partner?

  1. Susan Miller says:

    Mrs. Obama needs to have a long sit down with Raj Patel, Vandana Shiva and Wendell Berry. Camp David sounds like a good place to have this long visit. There is surely a better solution. It looks sort of like Cuba in the Special Period.

  2. Kathy says:

    Is there anyone there who would be able to tell Michelle Obama these things?

  3. Chris Clark says:

    Where should the first lady go? Wholefoods? Should she preach to the choir and address the people who have already received the message and can well afford healthy alternatives or should she take on the largest retailer? Walmart is far from perfect but it has shown that it is not resistant to change. Have you been in a new Walmart and have you seen the energy savings measures? Sure they love cutting costs and they like the good publicity but they’ve implemented those policies. If the largest grocery retailers changes it’s food suppliers, who will benefit? They will have to come to the farmer. Who else will benefit? Well, low income people like me who are forced to shop at Walmart. It’s the perfect place to start a campaign. If Walmart implements these policies, other stores will follow. When Styrofoam containers were found to be bad for the environment who was the target of campaign to stop using them? McDonald’s was. Once they stopped, that policy instantly became industry standard. That’s why Michelle Obama is addressing Walmart. Instant industry standardization.

    • John says:

      If you think WAL*MART is really going to change, think again!… Take a look at the working conditions of those who produce their cheap products… They will NEVER give up their huge profit margins or benefit the consumer… Sad but true!

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