RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We go to news now on America's biggest purveyor of groceries and the first lady's campaign to improve children's eating habits. Wal-Mart has announced a five-year effort to make healthy food more accessible and affordable around the country. At a kickoff news conference, the first lady said the company's move has the potential to transform the entire food marketplace.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Michelle Obama says her push to make healthier food more widely available is rooted in her own experience not so long ago, before she became first lady, when she was just another busy working mom.
Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: I remember standing in aisle after aisle in the grocery store searching high and low for the best options for my family, feeling so frustrated by how the healthy choice wasn't necessarily the affordable choice.
HORSLEY: Wal-Mart thinks it can change that. Senior Vice President Andrea Thomas says in the next five years, Wal-Mart will work with suppliers to reduce the salt and added sugar in thousands of prepared foods.
Standing in front of a display case filled with gleaming fruits and vegetables yesterday, Thomas said Wal-Mart is also using its supply chain know-how to shave costs off healthy items so eating right doesn't have to be more expensive.
Ms. ANDREA THOMAS (Senior Vice President of Private Brands, Wal-Mart): For instance, we're building more direct relationships with farmers. We believe we can save Americans who shop at Wal-Mart approximately one billion dollars per year on fresh fruits and vegetables.
HORSLEY: Wal-Mart will also develop a label to point shoppers to foods it considers healthy. And it's promising to build new stores in neighborhoods where food options are currently limited.
The initiative coincides with Wal-Mart's push into new urban markets, including Washington, D.C. Michelle Obama says the benefits are limited to a single retail chain.
Ms. OBAMA: When big companies like Wal-Mart make changes like this, that doesn't just affect the food sold in Wal-Mart, it affects the products that suppliers make and sell in grocery stores all across this country.
HORSLEY: As the nation's biggest retailer, Wal-Mart's already used its clout to change the way suppliers package and price their products.
Nutritionist Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina says the company can use that same leverage to make food makers cut down on salt and sugar.
Dr. BARRY POPKIN (Global Nutrition, University of North Carolina): They have the technology, they have the will and desire, and if Wal-Mart says we want you to do it, it will happen.
HORSLEY: Popkin adds it will be important to monitor Wal-Mart's actual results.
Over the last 30 years, he says, the cheapest calories have often come from sugary soft drinks and salty snacks. Wal-Mart could encourage customers to eat better simply by making healthy items more affordable.
Dr. POPKIN: Cost and price matters to all of America.
HORSLEY: Sarah Palin and others have mocked the first lady's campaign, saying children's nutrition should be left to parents, not the government. Michelle Obama insists her conservative critics have it all wrong.
Ms. OBAMA: It's not about government telling people what to do. That's not what this is about. It's about each of us in our own families, in our communities, standing up and demanding more for our kids. And it's about companies like Wal-Mart answering that call.
HORSLEY: That answer may not sway Wal-Mart's critics, including the union representing workers at competing grocery stores.
During the campaign, President Obama himself criticized Wal-Mart for low wages and benefits. A White House spokesman explained the new embrace of the company yesterday, saying lots has happened since 2007.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, the White House.
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