Michelle Obama and Walmart Join Forces Promoting Healthy Food

Michelle Obama and Walmart announce collaboration on healthy food.

January 20, 2011, 2:36 PM

Jan.20, 2011 — -- Walmart, saying it was inspired by first lady Michelle Obama's campaign to fight childhood obesity, is stepping up to the plate, announcing on Thursday a five-year plan to lower salts, fats and sugars in thousands of its products, and dropping prices for healthy items.

They're not really likely allies.

After all, the White House and corporate America have had a fairly contentious relationship during the first two years of the Obama administration. Not to mention that Walmart, the world's largest retailer with billions in sales, doesn't need to adjust the product it puts on its shelves. And that's why the first lady's "Let's Move" campaign's collaboration with Walmart to offer healthier food is so surprising.

Under the initiative, Walmart will make healthier food choices more affordable, develop seals for the front of packaging to make healthier food more identifiable, address food desert issues and increase support for nutrition programs.

Walmart sells more groceries than any other company in the U.S. and changes made by its suppliers could have a big impact on American's access to healthy food.

Speaking in front of stacks of produce and a giant "Let's Move" and "Walmart" banners, Mrs. Obama told a crowded auditorium at a community center in southeastern Washington, D.C., that Walmart's new, healthy charter is a huge victory for every American.

"It's a victory for parents. It's a victory for families, but most of all, it's a victory for our children," she said.

Mrs. Obama's husband, the president, back in 2007 when he was serving in the U.S. Senate, criticized Walmart for not paying its workers more. All was forgiven on Thursday.

Walmart executives proudly joined the first lady at the event and described how her campaign motivated them to make a difference.

"What you really have to look at is what's happening in our country and it really comes down to one basic truth: and the fact is that healthier eating -- and I think it's a goal we all share -- is really, really hard to do given the lifestyles that we live today," said Bill Simon, the CEO of Walmart. He called heart disease and diabetes complex problems for society, and he said Walmart realizes it has a role to play.

In a ringing endorsement of the first lady's campaign, Leslie Dach, Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Walmart described Michelle Obama as the catalyst that lead to Walmart's commitment.

Walmart Action Gets Mixed Reviews

"Through her 'Let's Move' campaign she's reached out and engaged every sector of society that can make a difference on this issue, and that's exactly the kind of leadership this nation needs," he said.

Walmart may have joined the first lady's campaign ultimately to help its bottom line. The company has been trying to open stores in big cities and says if they're allowed, they would bring healthier food to places with limited access to groceries.

Mrs. Obama, who is extremely enthusiastic about the announcement, said she believes Walmart's new charter represents something much bigger in her fight.

"When we decided to take on the issue of childhood obesity, I have to tell you, in the back of my mind, I wondered if we could really make a difference," the first lady said. "But today, when I see a company like Walmart launch an initiative like this I feel more hopeful than ever before…"

"Efforts like this show us that 'yes' we can improve how we make and sell food in this country. We can do that." She said all across the country people are stepping up to improve nutrition.

Mrs. Obama has tied to attack the nation's childhood obesity epidemic head-on. She said as a mother, she understands the challenge parents face in providing healthy food for their children, and she hopes every sector of society gets involved in helping to make the next generation of children healthier.

She picked up a major victory in December when President Obama signed into law The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The law provides more resources for school lunches and raises health standards on those lunches.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, cautioned that Walmart's imitative, while a good first step doesn't fully attack the problem. "I don't think it's a revelation. I think it's a nice nudge in the right direction," Jacobson told ABC News.

Wallmart wants its products as well as the products of suppliers reformulated so sodium levels are reduced by 25 percent and sugars by 10 percent. Jacobson thinks Walmart's insistence that suppliers reduce sodium could make a difference, but he says, the retailer took a baby step on sugar.

"I'm disappointed they didn't do anything with regard to soft drinks. They are the number one source of sugar and probably the biggest contributor in our diet to weight gain." Even though he'd like Walmart and the government to do more, Jacobson noted that the new charter could be a turning point. "You have this huge company using its leverage to move the food industry in the right direction. ... There's been very good progress."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events