First lady teams up with grocers nationwide

7/21/2011 23:31:57 PM

A collection of retail heavyweights will join first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to bring fresh fruits, vegetables and other nutritious foods to the USA's "food deserts" — impoverished areas with little access to healthy foods.

National chains, including Wal-Mart, Walgreens and SuperValu, and some regional retailers have agreed to open or expand more than 1,500 stores to bring more nutritious and fresh food to underserved communities. The companies' executives are joining the first lady at the White House today to make the announcement.

These changes will serve about 9.5 million people and could create tens of thousands of jobs, says Melody Barnes, director of the Domestic Policy Council. Currently, 23.5 million Americans — including 6.5 million children — live in low-income areas that lack stores that are likely to sell affordable and nutritious foods, she says.

As part of the efforts:

•Wal-Mart will open 275 to 300 stores in food deserts between now and 2016, and already has opened 218 stores in such neighborhoods since 2007 , says Leslie Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs. "The Walmart customer deserves to have access to healthy food at prices they can afford," Dach says.

The expansion is part of a comprehensive push by the retailer based in Bentonville, Ark., to promote healthier eating that also includes lower prices for premium products, such as whole wheat pasta, and support for charities.

•Walgreens will expand its food offerings to including fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthful choices at least 1,000 stores.

The all-purpose chain based in Chicago has begun pilot projects at stores in its hometown and in San Francisco to sell fresh, loose fruits and vegetables, prepackaged salads and fruits as well as sandwiches and partially prepared foods that can be cooked at home, Walgreens spokeswoman Tiffani Washington.

•SuperValu will build 250 Save-A-Lot stores over the next five years in areas that have little to no access to fresh produce.

The Department of Agriculture defines a food desert as a Census tract where 33% or 500 people, whichever is less, live more than a mile from a grocery store in an urban area or more than 10 miles away in a rural area.

"We know from the research that when people live in communities that have greater access to supermarkets, they consume more foods like fresh fruits and vegetables," Barnes says.

Penny Gordon-Larsen, a nutrition researcher at the University of North Carolina, says, "It's wonderful to provide greater access to underserved areas, but providing access alone may not be enough. These efforts need to be coupled with promotion, education and incentives for purchasing healthier foods."

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