Academic journal article Theory in Action

Profit in the Food Desert: Walmart Stakes Its Claim

Academic journal article Theory in Action

Profit in the Food Desert: Walmart Stakes Its Claim

Article excerpt

By opening stores where customers need them most, Walmart will help build healthier families and stronger communities. We believe every single person, in both rural and urban areas, should have access to an abundant selection of fresh fruits and vegetables at an affordable price. We are proud to say we are well on the path toward meeting our goal of opening 275-300 stores serving food deserts by 2016.

- Walmart Statement, Partnership for a Healthier America 2013

It seems there is good news in the movement for food justice: a highprofile non-profit organization has been created to "tackle" the "urgent national health crisis" of childhood obesity, in part by working to eradicate food deserts (Partnership for a Healthier America 2013). The organization, called the Partnership for a Healthier America, is an outgrowth of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign, and it negotiates agreements directly with companies to improve the way they manufacture, distribute, and sell food products to families and institutions. The organization was originally designed to harness the strongest available empirical findings to inform public health strategies to combat childhood obesity.

Millions of Americans-myself included-are thrilled about the attention Ms. Obama's campaign has directed on healthy eating and active lives. I would also like to support the Partnership for a Healthier America. However, despite the ambitions of some of the organization's originators and the well-intentioned efforts of the nutritionists and advocates on its staff, the Partnership's position as a state-sanctioned corporate clearinghouse requires further scrutiny. The "meaningful commitments" the Partnership secures from companies encompass a range of activities, many of which are laudable. Some pledge funding to create more opportunities for students to do exercise at school. Some are designed to increase the availability of water for children in childcare centers, and the coverage of obesity-prevention measures in healthcare plans. But in the meaningful commitments these company representatives have signed, most are "working together" with us to simply make their products more available for us to buy.

In this paper I focus on one company's "meaningful commitment" to the Partnership for a Healthier America: Walmart's. I examine whether this company's commitment is designed to contribute to a "healthier America," as advertised, or whether the terms of its commitment belie other motives that conflict with its stated goal. It is important to focus on Walmart in the consideration of food justice and sustainability because the company-the largest US private-sector employer and world's largest company by revenue (Fortune 2014)-has also become the largest food retailer in the US. Food & Water Watch reports that "one out of every three dollars spent on groceries in this country goes to Walmart" (Hauter 2014). This kind of dominance does not sprout up organically. Rather, it requires a great deal of ongoing, coordinated support from the state, along with clear, consistent messaging that gamers positive public opinion and distracts from any need for regulation. I argue here that an organization like the Partnership for a Healthier America, with its ostensible focus on remedies for obesity and food deserts, serves as a conduit through which a dominant private sector actor like Walmart can appear to cooperate with the state and the public, avoid regulatory scmtiny, and gain legitimacy by crafting a message that turns its profit-maximizing activities into the solution to public health and food access problems. By questioning this corporation's relationship with the state and the specific terms of its much-touted public commitment to open stores in food deserts, we can better assess whether its activities foster or impair the movement for food justice.


Walmart has come under intense scmtiny from activists, journalists, and scholars for its gender wage disparities (Featherstone 2004), unsustainable practices (Mitchell 2011), reliance on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Medicaid to counter low wages (Simon 2012), harmful domination of product supply chains (Food & Water Watch 2012), and anti-union retaliation (Logan 2013), among other issues. …

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