By SEAN COLLINS WALSH, NY Times
Executives from Wal-Mart, Walgreens, SuperValu and other stores joined Michelle Obama at the White House on Wednesday to announce a pledge to open or expand a combined 1,500 stores in communities that have limited access to nutritious food and are designated as “food deserts.”
With the pledges, secured by the Partnership for a Healthier America, which is part of Mrs. Obama’s campaign to reduce childhood obesity, the stores aim to reach 9.5 million of the 23.5 million Americans who live in areas where finding affordable healthy foods can be difficult. In those areas, many people turn to fast food restaurants or convenience stores.
“The commitments that you all are making today have the potential to be a game changer,” Mrs. Obama said at the event. “When these stores succeed, they can serve as anchors in our communities.”
The Department of Agriculture defines “food deserts” as low-income areas where more than 500 people or 33 percent of the population lives more than one mile from an affordable food store. In rural towns, the distance is 10 miles.
Walgreens, the Illinois-based retailer with more than 7,000 stores, pledged to reach 4.8 million people in such areas by turning 1,000 of its locations into “food oasis stores” that will sell fruit, vegetables and other groceries that they do not typically stock.
Wal-Mart said it would open or expand food sections in 275 to 300 stores by 2016, employing an estimated 40,000 people. SuperValu, which owns many regional grocery chains like Jewel-Osco and ACME, will open 250 new Save-A-Lot stores in five years.
Childhood obesity is a signature cause adopted by Mrs. Obama. One of every three American children is overweight or obese, leading some scientists to predict that today’s youth could become the first generation to have shorter lives than the previous generation, according to the White House.
Mrs. Obama said that food deserts, where 6.5 million American children live, contribute to the phenomenon. The government and the private sector need to work together to eliminate food deserts, she said.
“With your commitments today, you all are showing us what’s possible,” Mrs. Obama said. “This isn’t some mysterious issue that we can’t address. We know the answer. It is right there.”
The Obama administration’s Healthy Food Financing Initiative, begun by Mrs. Obama in February 2010, aims to financially assist stores that open in food deserts.
The initiative received a $35 million budget this year, well short of the hundreds of millions requested by President Obama. The administration asked for more than $300 million to be approved for it in the next budget.
In 2009, New York started its Food Retail Expansion to Support Health, or Fresh program, a joint state-city effort that offers incentives to stores to open in underserved communities. Fresh is credited with being one of the largest efforts to combat food deserts at a state or local level.