First Lady Michelle Obama Wants to Change America’s “Food Deserts” – July 21, 2011

Executive Highlights

  • Retail grocery chains joined First Lady Michelle Obama in the fight to bring healthy foods to “food deserts”- impoverished areas with little access to healthy foods.

I'm sitting back in San Francisco eating a Frog Hollow Farm peach and marveling that I had the opportunity yesterday to go to the White House to hear First Lady Michelle Obama speak on a critical topic – access to healthy food. It strikes me that Big Healthcare can learn a lot from Big Food. We’ll continue to follow this issue in the following months, but the First Lady’s announcement yesterday allows us to give an update.

The First Lady’s speech was inspiring. She founded the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity and is Honorary Chair of the Partnership for a Healthier America. That organization is now working with six companies to get fresh food, especially fresh fruit and vegetables, to ten million people in the US who do not have access to nutritious alternatives. They live in what is called food deserts. According to the Department of Agriculture, a food desert means you live between one and ten miles from healthy food. We aren’t talking six blocks away – it’s more like two city busses or one very expensive taxi. Food deserts have access only to fast food or corner stores, where mostly unhealthy options are sold.

As Dr. James Gavin, who introduced the session yesterday and is clearly very well liked by Mrs. Obama put it yesterday: “It’s one thing to know you have to eat your greens. It’s another thing to be able to actually buy them.” Yes, by the way, this is the same Dr. James Gavin who spoke at FDA Tuesday – everyone in Washington seems to know him. (And, yes. There is quite a contrast between FDA and the White House.)

Public figures often read speeches from a piece of paper or a teleprompter, and those remarks can sound flat – just one more duty on a busy schedule. Not the First Lady’s speech. She was conversational, funny, poised, and certainly impassioned. She spoke for nearly 20 minutes straight about ending (yes, ending) childhood obesity, rarely referencing her notes, calling out many people by name, speaking off-script – actually, it all seemed off-script and personal.

The First Lady thanked Dr. Gavin personally for all his work, was clearly familiar with his efforts to combat obesity, and said that she liked following him because wherever he went, good things were being done.

The food access initiative announced Wednesday involves six food retailers making fresh, healthy food available at affordable prices, but Mrs. Obama’s larger message – that this is a crisis we can solve – is what inspired so much hope.

The First Lady knows that her goal is ambitious, and the more power to her. Someone has to set the bar high. I was gratified that she supported her comments with stats and a clear knowledge of the social and economic conditions that disadvantaged communities face. Mrs. Obama would be equally at home leading a pep rally or a policy seminar.

Regarding people. The First Lady did seem to know everyone in the room, all the policymakers, all the people from Big Food, and many of the people that play smaller roles. On the dais were CEOs and senior executives from the six retailers who are kicking off this project and people from these retailers that run the cash registers. This was incredibly moving, especially when they were asked to stand by the First Lady. We all stood up and clapped. Very appropriate.

So Mrs. Obama announced that three large chains and three small chains would provide new access to healthy, fresh food to 10 million people, among them, over two million children, by 2016. The plan is for Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and SuperValu to open or expand over 1,500 locations over the next five years in low-income areas. The California Endowment, through its FreshWorks Fund, has pledged $200 million. The federal government will fund $35 million this year and perhaps as much as $300 million next year. The three big retailers, along with several small chains, have committed to make fruits and vegetables more accessible at affordable prices to about 40% of the 25 million Americans who currently do not have access. Really terrific. I wonder mostly how vegetable and fruit farmers must feel. This is big, as Mrs. Obama herself said, her own voice a bit taken aback by it all.

Momentum is building. The three smaller stores who are working to expand access are Calhoun Enterprises, Brown Superstores, and ShopRite. Greg Calhoun, the owner of Calhoun Enterprises, was on hand yesterday and vowed to build ten stores in the next five years in food deserts in Alabama and Tennessee. Jeff Brown of Brown Superstores agreed to build one food-desert store and expand another (he already has one in Maryland), while the Klein family, which has one food-desert store, said it would build another. That these small retailers are all doubling capacity is quite something, and the First Lady noticed: she directly challenged Wal-Mart and Walgreens to do to the same. Mrs. Obama doesn’t take any prisoners.

We salute Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), which Dr. Gavin chairs, for driving ambitious partnerships with retailers – see our June 21, 2011 interview with CEO Larry Soler and Dr. Gavin for more insights on this nimble organization. Following yesterday, we suggest those in Big Pharma and Big MedTech move to show what Big Healthcare can do, and not just leave it to Big Food.

These companies are changing in big and small ways due to partnerships with PHA.

  • Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and SuperValu have made significant strides to bring nutritious foods to poor urban areas by agreeing to open or expand 1,500 stores. Since 2007, Wal-Mart has opened 218 stores in areas that lack access to healthy foods, and the company plans to open up to 300 more stores in food deserts by 2016. To promote access to healthy foods, Walgreens will increase its selection of fresh fruits and vegetables at a minimum of 1,000 stores and will begin selling loose fruits, vegetables, and prepackaged salads. As for SuperValu, the company plans to open 250 Save-A-Lot stores over the next five years in food deserts. The company says its efforts will serve about 9.5 million people and could potentially create thousands of jobs.
  • Check it out. Big Food knows that these agreements won’t be easy. Fresh food is expensive, it doesn’t have a long shelf life, and it isn’t simple to market. How to ensure affordability? What pricing policies will be used? What evaluation process will be used? How willenforcement of these agreements work? Are there penalties for non-compliance? There’s lots of uncertainty. But the companies want to be on the ground floor of this change – what Dr. Gavin refers to as “an amazing first step to changing the culture of eating.”
  • Clearly, the problem of childhood obesity can’t be solved by rhetoric alone and is beyond, as Dr. Gavin says, processes and planning. “We have a real uphill battle on our hands and we must act.” But why are there eleven agreements with PHA and none are with healthcare companies? PHA, recall, is about creating a healthier America.
  • Get in there, Big Healthcare! No need to miss out on being part of history.
  • Postscript: Anyone who wants to follow up on working with Partnership for a Healthier America, please write Larry Soler, PHA’s CEO and former COO at Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation at

--by Kelly Close and Kyle Rudolph