Michelle Obama Partners With Walmart For Healthy Eating

First Lady Michelle Obama has joined forces with low-price retail giant Walmart in an initiative to bring affordable, healthier food to American consumers. The plan is for Walmart to offer products with lower sodium, sugar and salt to customers over the next four years, and to push their suppliers to do the same. Host Michel Martin speaks with Nia Malika Henderson, who covers the First Lady for the Washington Post, about the campaign as well as about the First Lady's appearance at last night's state dinner for the Chinese president at the White House.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's been 50 years since John F. Kennedy was sworn into office as president. And as with the Obama inauguration, it was a tough ticket to get back in 1961. In a few minutes we'll talk to JFK's niece, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, about her recollections of that inauguration day.

The first lady's attire was the talk of the town in 1961, and it was again last night. Michelle Obama's red gown was a hit at the White House state dinner for Chinese president, Hu Jintao. Today, though, she turned her attention to her signature issue: fighting childhood obesity. At a Washington, D.C. community center, she joined executives of Wal-Mart to announce a campaign by the retail giant to offer healthier foods and to get its suppliers to do likewise.

We wanted to know more about the effort, so we've called upon Nia-Malika Henderson. She covers the first lady for The Washington Post. Nia, thanks for joining us.

Ms. NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON (Reporter, The Washington Post): It's great to be here.

MARTIN: And I do want to warn you, I will be asking about the state dinner and the dress last night.

Ms. HENDERSON: Okay, great. It's a fabulous dress.

MARTIN: Fabulous dress.

But, first, I wanted to ask, what specifically is Wal-Mart going to do and how did Michelle Obama tie into this decision?

Ms. HENDERSON: Well, this has been an effort that has been about a year in the making. It really began when our first lady Obama turned her attention to healthy food and her Let's Move! initiative, you know, getting kids to eat healthier, getting them to exercise. And all along the way she has gotten corporations on board in ways, like, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, getting them to look at their labeling, to not advertise such sweet foods to kids.

So now, I mean, she is really putting her name with Wal-Mart. And this, of course, is the nation's largest retailer, the largest private employer and she's going to try to get them on board to really sell healthier food. Because, as I said, I mean this is a big grocery retailer, the largest. And so many people, especially in the South, this is where they primarily get their food.

I don't know if you've ever been in a Wal-Mart, but it's like church on Sunday morning. You see everybody there and everybody is not only shopping for household goods, but also, you know, fruits and vegetables.

MARTIN: Well, Wal-Mart, as I'm sure you know, is a very polarizing corporate figure.

Ms. HENDERSON: Yes.

MARTIN: On the one hand, as you said, it is the country's largest retailer. It is, I think, I'm not sure, a lot of people know it is also the country's largest grocery supplier...

Ms. HENDERSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...loved by many people for its low prices and consistency. But other people vilified for what they consider to be hostile, you know, labor practices, some people believe that it has actually depressed certain neighborhoods by, you know, driving out small businesses.

And I do wonder whether this - was there any hesitation on the part of the White House to associate the first lady with a corporate citizen which is so controversial?

Ms. HENDERSON: Well, I'm certainly sure that they thought of that, because as you said, Wal-Mart has had this polarizing image and they worked in the last years to sort of reverse that. But they had drawn criticism, especially from the left for some of their anti-union practices. And even Michelle Obama, who was on the board of Wal-Mart, she resigned in 2007, after her husband was vying for the nomination. And he said that he wouldn't shop there. So they are certainly aware of this.

But I guess they are also looking at Wal-Mart and its very important place in selling groceries to especially low income folks and saying that this a corporation that they want to put their name to. I do think it isn't without its risks, though. I think we will hear from folks on the left, folks, you know, in unions and we of course know that the Obama administration has had great relationships with big labor. So I think in some ways it strikes me as a potentially risky move for her.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Nia-Malika Henderson of The Washington Post. We're talking about an announcement today by Wal-Mart that they would be introducing healthier foods into their stores. They were joined in that announcement by first lady Michelle Obama. What will consumers, or what is Wal-Mart promising that consumers will see? And I'm curious about the question of price.

Ms. HENDERSON: Oh, well, this is going to be, it's a five-year plan and their plan is essentially to lower the sodium, lower the fats, lower the sugar amount and also to drop the prices on fruits and vegetables. So it's something that we'll see phased in over the next five years. And essentially when you go to Wal-Mart you'll see lower prices on these items and healthier foods.

MARTIN: And one of the things that's noteworthy about this announcement is that this comes at a time when Wal-Mart is trying to move into certain urban markets after having long been associated both with rural and suburban environments.

Ms. HENDERSON: Exactly.

MARTIN: They're trying to move into Washington, D.C.

Ms. HENDERSON: Exactly. And, you know, they've been trying to move into areas in New York as well. And it looks like they're going to at least successfully be able to move here to D.C. And but, again, like you said, that is not without its controversy either, because one of the perceptions is that they move in, this big box store and a lot of the smaller mom and pop stores move out. But, of course, you know, in fairness, in neighborhoods like southeast D.C., there aren't a lot of businesses.

And Ms. Obama has talked about the whole idea of food deserts where there are not a lot of places to shop. So in some ways a Wal-Mart coming in would address that problem.

MARTIN: And, finally, let's talk about the state dinner.

Ms. HENDERSON: Fun stuff.

MARTIN: I understand that you were there.

Ms. HENDERSON: Yes, yes, I was there.

MARTIN: Did you have a pretty dress?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HENDERSON: You know, I will say, you know, I was working. It was, like, a 12-hour day. So I'm ashamed to admit, I was wearing pants, black pants. You know, at least I was in black.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, that's what you were wearing. What about what the first lady was wearing? Tell us about it.

Ms. HENDERSON: Michelle Obama chose an Alexander McQueen - just go around - in a floor-length red dress, slightly off the shoulder and she looked fabulous.

MARTIN: And why do you think people - dress is getting rave reviews - and what is it about that dress that was such a wow?

Ms. HENDERSON: Well, I think it's very bold. It's very modern with the red, of course, in some ways, that's, you know, a nod to China as well. So it really hit all the right notes.

MARTIN: Nia-Malika Henderson covers the first lady, among other issues, for The Washington Post, and she was kind enough to join us from her office there. Nia, thank you for joining us.

Ms. HENDERSON: Thank you, Michel, take care.

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