WASHINGTON - The giant Supervalu grocery chain became a key player in First Lady Michelle Obama's national battle against childhood obesity Wednesday with a promise to open 250 supermarkets in urban and rural areas that currently don't have easy access to fresh fruits, vegetables and meat.
Executives from Supervalu, Wal-Mart, Walgreens and several small grocery chains joined the first lady at the White House to outline a five-year program designed to improve the availability of healthy, affordable food to the estimated 23.5 million men, women and children who live significant distances from supermarkets.
Supervalu, based in Eden Prairie, pledged to open 250 of its Save-A-Lot stores within these so-called "food deserts." The company estimates that it will provide better food access to 3.75 million people and create up to 6,000 new jobs in the mostly poor communities the stores will serve. Walgreens, a drugstore chain that operates in many food deserts, promised to add fresh fruits and vegetables to inventories in at least 1,000 locations. Wal-Mart will add or expand up to 300 stores.
'Business model that works'
"We reached out to the White House," Craig Herkert, Supervalu's chief executive, told the Star Tribune shortly before his appearance at the White House. "We thought we had a good fit [for the anti-obesity push]. The idea is that we have a business model that works. This is a business proposition for us."
Supervalu, Minnesota's fourth-largest publicly traded company, will open stores in urban areas such as Atlanta, Philadelphia and New Orleans and increase its presence in Chicago, where it recently opened five inner-city Save-A-Lot supermarkets. For now, it has no plans to open more stores within Minnesota's food deserts.
The first lady's program, called "Let's Move," identified local food access as critical to solving childhood obesity.
The initiative "is about giving parents real choices about the food their kids are eating," Obama said Wednesday. "And if a parent wants to pack a piece of fruit in a child's lunch, if a parent wants to add some lettuce for a salad at dinner, they shouldn't have to take three city buses, or pay some expensive taxi to go to another community to make that possible."
Herkert says Supervalu not only intends to make healthy food available, the company also expects to make money. The Save-A-Lot strategy incorporates no-frills stores that stock few brand-name products. Save-A-Lot prices can run as much as 40 percent below regular supermarkets, Herkert said.
Whether improving access to healthier food will lead to a healthier nation is unclear. A study of the eating habits of food desert residents published in Archives of Internal Medicine concluded that "greater supermarket availability was generally unrelated to diet quality and fruit and vegetable intake."
'You need incentives'
"Just providing access won't be enough," said University of North Carolina nutrition Prof. Penny Gordon-Larsen, one of the study's principal authors. "You need incentives to purchase healthier food."
Gordon-Larsen and her co-authors speculated that zoning restrictions on fast food restaurants might be necessary for food desert supermarkets to change people's eating habits.
Supervalu has no interest in choosing what customers must eat, Herkbert said, noting that his stores will continue to offer snacks and sweets, as well as healthier fare. He called banning fast-food restaurants a "spurious" solution. But Supervalu does try to send a messages to anyone entering a food desert Save-A-Lot. The first thing they see is an "attractive" produce department, Herkert said.
That kind of thinking is what the obesity crisis demands, the first lady noted.
"We want folks to be creative because there's really no one-size-fits-all solution," she said. "A fresh-food section in a Walgreens might be a good solution for one community, while a farmers market or maybe even a veggie truck might be the answer in another community."
Jim Spencer • 202-408-2752