Can Wal-Mart Change America's Eating Habits?

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, speaks to host Robert Siegel about whether Wal-Mart's announcement will change America's eating habits and improve the nation's nutritional health.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

So what's the chance that all of this will change America's eating habits and improve the nation's nutritional health? We're going to put those questions now to Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, who joins us today from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

Welcome to the program.

Professor MARION NESTLE (Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, New York University): I'm glad to be here.

SIEGEL: So what's the likelihood that these decisions by the nation's biggest grocer will make us eat better?

Prof. NESTLE: Well, they're going to have an enormous impact on the food industry. There's no question about that. They're going to force food suppliers, or the suppliers of packaged, processed foods, to cut down the amount of salt and sugar in their products. This will turn a lot of products into what are called better-for-you products and are going to raise an important philosophical question which is: Is a better-for-you processed food a good choice?

And that brings us to the whole question of fruits and vegetables, which I think is a much more important initiative in this set of initiatives...

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Prof. NESTLE: ...and that is pricing fruits and vegetables at a level in which people can actually afford. The index price of fruits and vegetables has gone up by 40 percent since 1980, whereas the index price of a lot of processed foods has gone down by almost as much.

If they can change some of that and fill some of that gap and make fruits and vegetables more important, that could have a really important effect on people's health, especially the health of low-income consumers who go to Wal-Mart.

SIEGEL: I'm just curious about this notion of pricing of fruits and vegetables. We had a story on this week about what the housing crisis has done to citrus crops in Florida. I would imagine that the prices of fruits and vegetables aren't that easily manipulable by even as big a retailer as Wal-Mart. I mean, can they actually bring down the price of tomatoes seriously to make them more affordable to people?

Prof. NESTLE: Well, the big concern is that they're going to take the loss - the lowering of price out of the incomes of farmers who produce it. What they say is that's not their intention. Their intention is to take a look at their supply chain and make their supply chain much more efficient.

And, in fact, they're going to go into the supply-chain business as a result of this. And because of the efficiency that a company of their size can bring into the supply chain operation that they're going to be able to make it more efficient and therefore cheaper, and they're not, in fact, going to take it out of the hides of small farmers. I think we have to wait and see how this plays out.

SIEGEL: If you could locate some pressure point in the whole U.S. food system or the marketing of food to people and if you could fix that, you think it would have the most dramatic effect on American eating habits, where would you go? What would you try to take out of the food system or change in the way things are marketed and sold?

Prof. NESTLE: Well, I'm a public health person, and we always talk about root causes. The root cause of the problems in our food system is really farm subsidies and the way that they work. We support the production of corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat. We don't support the production of fruits and vegetables. If we want people to eat more fruits and vegetables, we need to change that in some way.

The other source of corruption, of course, is the way we fund election campaigns. As long as corporations are funding the campaigns of our congressional representatives, we're not going to get laws passed that favor public health. Our laws are going to continue to favor corporate health.

SIEGEL: Professor Nestle, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. NESTLE: You're very welcome.

SIEGEL: Marion Nestle spoke to us from Ithaca, New York. She's professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

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