Michelle Obama, Wal-Mart and the ‘food desert’ problem


Nothing’s ever as simple as we’d like it to be. A case in point: Policies that simply increase access to supermarkets may not get people to choose an apple over ice cream, a recent study reported.

Changing people’s eating habits is difficult, in other words. One reason is money. Healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and dairy, can often be pricey. For the cost of a couple of peaches, a person can get a full meal on the dollar menu at a fast-food outlet. Another problem: The produce in stores in low income neighborhoods is often of low quality.

This is a hefty problem, given that 1 in every 3 children and adults is overweight or obese. Policy-makers and health-food advocates across the country are developing programs to increase access to healthful foods—and make it easier for people to buy them.


Here’s a look at some of them:

-- Earlier this week, First Lady Michelle Obama introduced the California FreshWorks Fund, a $200-million partnership between the California Endowment and grocers, healthcare organizations and financial institutions. The project is meant to promote development of grocery stores, farmers markets, gardening programs and other solutions to increase access to high-quality, healthful foods in areas with limited availability (so-called food deserts). Retailers that offer a greater selection of healthful foods and sell less junk food will get easier access to the grants. Organizers said they hoped the program would create 6,000 jobs in California.

-- Wal-Mart also announced the opening of 300 stores by 2016 in places the U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified as food deserts. These stores will employ more than 40,000 people and make healthful options more affordable, the company said in a statement.

-- Mobile food trucks and pantries, like Garden-on-the-Go in Indiana, MoGro in New Mexico, Veggie Mobile in upstate New York and Peaches and Greens in Michigan are bringing fresh and affordable produce to low-income neighborhoods. Some of these programs are still too new to assess long-term effect on eating habits, but organizers say that there is demand in the communities they serve.

-- National initiatives already exist to encourage people who qualify to eat better by making nutritious foods cost-effective. Programs sponsored by the USDA, like SNAP-Ed which issues food stamps and focuses on community education – and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, provide families with financial support to purchase fresh produce, eggs, whole-wheat bread and dairy. Produce was added to the WIC program’s food options in 2009, and a 2010 study showed that moms and children on WIC were eating more fruits and vegetables after this change was made.

-- In cities across the country, more farmers markets are accepting food stamps. Frank Tamborello of Hunger Action Los Angeles, a group that advocates for healthful eating, said that food stamp use increased about 50% after Health Action Los Angeles initiated their Veggie Vouchers program at several farmers markets in Los Angeles in April 2010. As part of the program, consumers who receive food stamps, WIC, Social Security or Supplemental Security Income get up to $5 of extra spending money when they purchase food at participating farmers markets

These kinds of incentives – combined with nutrition education and cooking classes – will be “valuable in guiding people to the produce and away from sodas and frankfurters,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that advocates for nutrition and food safety.


One education program is the USDA-sponsored Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, which teaches low-income families the skills to make healthful food choices. The program reported that in 2010 nearly half of its participants were eating more fruits and vegetables each day. In California, more than 50% of residents in the program were more physically active and used food labels to choose what they ate more often.

Jamie Oliver, host of the TV show “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” says that he’s seen “how empowering a few cooking classes can be and how quickly people develop the confidence to change the way they eat.” The celebrity chef plans to open a network of community kitchens where people can come in and learn to cook healthful meals.

Programs are also training members of the community to go out and teach peers about nutrition and health. For example, in California, “champion” moms are going out into their communities as part of the Champions for Change campaign to teach other families about nutrition and leading healthy lives. The hope is that this will create a network effect leading to better overall nutrition in under-served neighborhoods.