How Walmart Swindled the White House

When Michelle Obama first announced her Let’s Move program to end childhood obesity “within a generation” last year, I tried to remain open-minded. Like many others, I was happy to have the First Lady bring attention to this important problem. And there’s no doubt that her leadership has helped, for example, to get Congress to make improvements to school meals. But I remained concerned that the White House was reluctant to take on the food industry in any meaningful way. It seems that things are worse than I thought.

Last week, Walmart executives announced what Michelle Obama hailed as a new “nutrition charter,” which consists of a number of promises to sell healthier food. While the media reported the news with much fanfare, serving up the positive spin that Walmart hoped the First Lady would help provide, there was little critique to be found.

I am less interested in the specifics of the proposal than I am in the fact that the White House endorsed it. This secretly-brokered deal raises numerous troubling questions about the respective roles of industry and government as it relates to setting food and nutrition policy for the nation. For starters:

1) What was the First Lady’s staff doing in secret talks with Walmart for over a year? How did such an approach even get started? Here’s an alternative scenario: Congress holds hearings (you know, in public) on how the entire food industry should be changing its ways with enforceable, meaningful laws that apply to everyone, not just Walmart.

2) Why not wait until Walmart has actually accomplished something to give them credit? Any company can promise something. And we have plenty of examples of other food companies making promises that weren’t kept. (Shameless plug: my book is chock-full of them; can someone please send a copy to Mrs. Obama? No really, please.)

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.

3) What has the White House traded in exchange for Walmart’s pledges? In most negotiations, each party gives up something to gain something. While the White House may not admit it, Walmart does reap valuable rewards besides just good PR. As I also describe in my book, the goal here is for companies to avoid actual government regulation by claiming that voluntary, self-regulation is the way to go. This is obviously what Walmart intends with its pledge to develop “strong criteria for a simple front-of-package” label despite the fact that the Food and Drug Administration has announced its intention to address this issue. But who needs scientific government agencies telling food companies what belongs on food packages when the First Lady has that covered in her secret meetings?

4) Why would the White House endorse a plan with a 5-year timetable? How will it be monitored? And how will Walmart be held accountable? Is there some sort of contract between and White House and Walmart? If these were legal negotiations, a written agreement would be signed by both parties that would be be legally binding. So what happens in 5 years? Will Walmart host another press conference with the First Lady to announce how well they did with their list of promises? Don’t count on it. If history is any guide, no one will even remember Thursday’s PR stunt. Sure, it’s possible that some progress will be made by 2016, fewer salt grams here, a little less sugar there. But that will hardly make a dent in the public health crisis that faces our nation.

Oddly, Sam Kass, Mrs. Obama’s Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives, defended the White House endorsement by claiming that “everything Walmart does is available to the public because they’re a publicly held company. It’s very easy to track.”

Say what? Can someone please educate Mr. Kass about how corporations work? Being a publicly-held company just means that the public can buy your stock. (As opposed to a company with privately-held stock.) It also means that 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? Why is this not a public process either?

Finally, what signal does this sends to the food industry at large? No need to worry about pesky government regulations when you’ve got the White House staff at the ready to bargain in secret over your business practices and conduct joint press conferences. While this announcement gives the appearance of government approval, it’s really quite far from actual policy-making. That involves the messy (and also imperfect) process of democracy. But it’s our messy democracy, where We The People still have some say. How and why does Michelle Obama get to replace public, democratic lawmaking with secret, brokered deal-making? And what is the President’s role in all this?

And shame on the media not asking such questions, but rather, helping to give Walmart exactly what they wanted: free positive PR spin within the warm glow of the First Lady.

In contrast, read my wonderful colleagues Marion Nestle, Anna Lappe, and Melanie Warner for their more meaningful takes. What do you think?

16 Responses to “How Walmart Swindled the White House”

  1. Read this w/ interest…to give you a different perspective….As a regional supermarket chain (202 stores in 6 states) we are watching this w/ interest. A huge company like Walmart that buys and sells millions and millions in food products is able to bring significant pressure on manufacturers to change formulations of said products, i.e. less sugar, less salt. This may end up helping all of us, and I speak as a dietitian and a shopper.

  2. [...] From The Editor: Walmart (Dan Flynn from Food Safety News) How Walmart Swindled the White House (Michele Simon at Appetite for [...]

  3. [...] Simon, author of the book Appetite for Profit and the blog of the same name, looks less at the specifics of the proposal and more at the process.  She asks pointedly: What was the [...]

  4. FYI, I included this piece in my round-up of bloggers’ opinions about the Walmart deal: http://bit.ly/dV1i3i Later today, my own take.

  5. [...] Simon, author of the book Appetite for Profit and the blog of the same name, asked What was the First Lady’s staff doing in secret talks with Walmart for over a year? How did such [...]

  6. Hi again — here’s why I feel that the deal may still be a net good. Curious to hear your thoughts. http://bit.ly/eXLr2B

  7. [...] 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] [...]

  8. Janet Camp says:

    One thing that doesn’t get enough attention in this is the shareholders–corporations act on their behalf. Lots of people who would never shop at WalMart or eat at McDonald’s own stock in these companies (I know some of them). They make good food choices, so they don’t think about or care about the populations that are negatively affected by the methods employed by Big Food. I would bet that the Obamas have these stocks in their portfolio–the Clintons as well.

    Until people have the moral courage to say, “clean up your act or I’ll sell my stock” corporations are going to continue to execute their mission, part of which will be to forestall regulation by putting lipstick on the pig.

    The First Lady compromised her mission from the beginning by choosing a name that reflects the food industry’s mantra that we are fat because we don’t “move” enough (we don’t, but the problem really is that we EAT TOO MUCH), which makes obesity OUR problem, not theirs. This ties in nicely with the view of shareholders that it is up to the individual to regulate his or her consumption. Whatever happened to the “common good”?

  9. [...] what happens when Walmart’s pledge made earlier this year–with the first lady by their side–to sell more fresh produce at [...]

  10. Tina says:

    I hadnt thought about it from your angle…now I have and its not a good thing.
    See, When walmart first gave us a grocery dept in our town, I went there and the prices were good…but when they were out of a product…too bad until they got in another supply.
    I came hold and told my husband, “this is what a government grocery store is…you watch, walmart is in full time rehearsals to be the government grocer.”
    He told me to start drinking decaf.

    Today he said, “thinking you’re right”.

    Be afraid…be very afraid :(

  11. [...] the campaign organizers appear eager to form corporate partnerships. For example, the first lady hailed Walmart’s so-called “healthy food initiative” as a new “nutrition [...]

  12. [...] to “get restaurants to adopt her goals of smaller portions and children’s meals.” (I wrote about the troubling aspects of Mrs. Obama’s secret meetings with Walmart that same year.) A [...]

  13. [...] gaining the first lady’s stamp of approval and scoring a press conference with her, as Disney and Walmart did. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking these will be meaningful or long-lasting [...]

  14. [...] the first lady’s stamp of approval and scoring a press conference with her, as Disney and Walmart did. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking these will be meaningful or long-lasting [...]

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