Healthier Food to Kill Us Slower. ~ John Cahill

Via on Jan 24, 2011

Wal-Mart Sells Red Herring with Less Salt.

Photo Courtesy of Jason Mundy

Wal-Mart announced that over the next five years they will be making select products from their store’s brand (Great Value) more healthy by reducing sodium by 25%, added sugars by 10%, and removing all “industrially produced trans-fats”.

According to a press release the company put out Thursday, they also plan to encourage suppliers of food products to follow their lead, which could have a ripple effect if products by companies like Kraft (in Wal-Mart stores and everywhere else) become healthier.

To make the deal even sweeter, First Lady Michelle Obama—as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign—stood with the company for these announcements and to announce that the stores will be lowering the costs of produce items in order to make fruits and vegetables more affordable to people who might otherwise see processed foods as the only affordable grocery choices. What’s more, they say that the savings will come from, “a variety of sourcing, pricing, and transportation and logistics initiatives that will drive efficiencies throughout the supply chain and further reduce unnecessary costs”, which essentially means that Wal-Mart will not be creating the savings by short changing farmers. Because of the scale of Wal-Mart’s business, even if a farmer sells lettuce a little cheaper, much more of it will sell to a reliable purchaser, which should mean more money to the growers.

All of this seems like good news, and it’s hard to argue that the benefits forecasted aren’t worth it. However, when one considers this from another angle, it can be seen that this is just another way to prop up an unsustainable system. Of course we can all be optimistic about the results that this will have on childhood obesity, heart disease, and type II diabetes, but will it really have an effect?

The company uses the term “key product categories” to describe which food items will be affected, which, according to a New York Times article on the subject, will not include soft drinks. Aside from ignoring the bottles and cans of carbonated corn syrup that are destroying our nation’s health, these measures also ignore the systemic problems in America’s food production and distribution system.

The measures do nothing to end the promotion of monocultures in agriculture. The government subsidies—that encourage the sapping of nutrients from farmable soil by paying farmers to plant and replant the same product annually without crop rotation, and practices that lead to massive amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to be introduced into our natural environment—will only be encouraged as people think that “healthier” processed products are actually “healthy”. Healthier does not mean Healthy.

Photo Courtesy of Whitney & Matt Dellinger

Almost all processed food contains variations on industrial corn. Whether it’s high fructose corn syrup, corn oil, xanthan gum, citric acid, or any of the other restructurings, most everything with an ingredient list contains corn­—the most popular monoculture out there. Efforts like this, while well-intentioned, run the risk of making consumers feel more comfortable eating foods that still contain the same bad stuff that they did before.

Corn is also a key ingredient in cheap meat. Animals, some of which have not evolved to tolerate corn based diets, are fed corn so that vendors like Wal-Mart and your average grocery store can sell farmed salmon, bacon, or dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets cheaper. Wal-Mart’s plan for healthier products does not take cheap, industrial meat into account, which is unfortunate because of the enormous environmental and health impact they could have if they made similar changes to their meat sourcing.

The current system of agriculture in America works on a “bigger is better” model. Our government pays farmers to grow products like dent corn, which is fairly inedible unless it is processed into nutrient void ingredients or if you happen to be a cow on a feedlot. No subsidies are given to independent family farmers that grow food that is actually edible. The farmers at your local farmers market are not rich; they are usually quite poor. They don’t charge that much for a carrot to finance their BMWs; they charge that much because that is what it costs to grow a carrot without pesticides or government subsidies.

Wal-Mart is part of the systemic problem because it relies on and supports the “bigger is better” model. Anyone who regularly shops at a co-op or farmers market may occasionally become frustrated when told, “Sorry, there was a frost and we just didn’t get any blackberries this week.” This is the sort of thing that Wal-Mart tries to avoid by finding large, reliable producers, but once again, we are supporting monocultures. Wal-Mart won’t work with a farm that says, “Sorry, we were only growing sweet corn last year, this year it’s mostly snow peas”, or any diversified farms for that matter.

If a place like Wal-Mart needs to exist, I’m glad that they are making these changes, but Wal-Mart doesn’t need to exist. In a way, I feel like the guy who hopes that gas prices stay at peak levels so that more people want electric cars. When we look at the problem of our country’s food system, in terms of health, affordability, environmental impact, animal rights, human rights, and many other facets, we realize that the structure of the system is completely unsound. If we allow the current “bigger is better” model to continue, childhood obesity will be the least of our concerns.

Wal-Mart is hiding symptoms that are created by a system that it relies on and promotes. This will suppress demand for systemic changes. After all, when gas prices go back down, people stop demanding fuel-efficient cars. The First Lady should be applauded for encouraging Americans to be healthier, but this seems like a lot of fan fare for a project that will simply drag out the war on industrial food. We can be impressed by Wal-Mart’s efforts to support local farmers, make their products healthier, open stores in food deserts, and many other initiatives, but really these are red herrings that stymie efforts for a real, systemic change.

John Cahill is a writer and educator in Chicago. After spending a year living in the Berkshire Mountains, learning about local food systems and volunteering on farms and ranches, he returned to the windy city and continues to promote availability of local, fresh food to the community through volunteer work. You can check out his letters here.

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7 Responses to “Healthier Food to Kill Us Slower. ~ John Cahill”

  1. Donovan says:

    Hey John, can you answer me this. You said, "In a way, I feel like the guy who hopes that gas prices stay at peak levels so that more people want electric cars." My question is, where does the electricity come from to power the electric cars? Unles I'm mistaken, it mostly comes from COAL BURNING plants, which again, unles I'm mistaken is about the dirtiest fuel known to man. Please tell me how electric cars are really any cleaner from a holistic point of view than gas powered ones?

    • John says:

      Fair point and an excellent part of the conversation that we need to be having. The move to electric cars obviously would be a rather pointless initiative without a diversification of power plants in our electric grid. The bigger is better model is not exclusive to American agriculture; it applies to most aspects of consumerism here. Personally, I rely on my bicycle, and public transportation to get around Chicago and rarely find myself in a car. The exploitation of South American lithium resources for the production of rechargeable batteries for vehicles and small electronics is also an enormous looming problem, but rather than halt all progress in the name of indecision I think we need to push the conversation and find solutions. Of course, as I hope is clear in the article, I am in favor of scaling down our consumer culture. Small diversified energy sources are what we need to aim for, in the same way that small diversified farms are where we should be looking. This smaller more diverse model can be applied to almost all aspects of our lives. Unfortunately, the mass production of goods will not stop anytime soon. Still, this should not discourage our efforts as individuals to become small scale producers and be smarter consumers.

      Thank you for your question. I hope that as a nation we continue this discussion and push it to new places so that we can affect change instead of sitting still in skepticism. Every day while waiting for the L I see mile long freight trains hauling coal across the country and I look forward to the day when the trains are pulling turbine blades, solar arrays and other components to potential energy sources.

      - John Cahill

  2. Chris B says:

    The tag line in the Elephant Weekly Newsletter said : Walmart vs. Whole Foods. ~ John Cahill. Unless you mean "whole foods", as in healthy foods. But i'm going to go out on a limb here and anyone who reads elephant that sees the words Whole Foods thinks the the grocery chain (John Mackey). I don't see any mention of them in this in this article. Funny thing is, Whole foods IS the Walmart of the health food industry. Everything from low worker incomes to price gouging and marking up locally grown produce beynond reason. Need we mention either driving out, monoploizing or taking over local groceries and health food stores in practically every market they've entered? I think this quote is great from the article,
    " Wal-Mart is part of the systemic problem because it relies on and supports the “bigger is better” model"
    I think we can safely insert the words Whole Foods here.
    I am by no means making a case for Walmart. Whole Foods has pulled off an amazing feat in bringing healthy food on a mass level to the general public requiring conventional grocery retailers to stand up and take notice. But can the average working blue collar American afford the prices at Whole Foods?

  3. John says:

    I agree with most of what you have to say and I'm not sure where the Whole Foods element came in, but as you mentioned, "I don't see any mention of them in this in this article." I didn't write about them in the article and if the article got labeled that way in the newsletter I'm not sure why, it was not my doing and Whole Foods has nothing to do with the article. In the article and my response to the previous comment I advocate for small scale markets. Food equity needs to be resolved in our country, no doubt. It's great that many areas are now accepting food stamps at farmers markets. Whole foods and many co-ops also accept food stamps. Food stamps won't fix the larger problems that I wrote about, but it's a start. Until we have systemic changes it is up to people like me and you to devote time to specific projects that can bring about change.

  4. matthew says:

    you make a lot of good points. good article!

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