Healthy food is expensive. Penny for penny, a bag of baby carrots is going to cost you about the same as a combo meal from Taco Bell. When healthy, unprocessed food is up against fast food one-on-one — say, an apple versus a small order of fries from McDonald’s — there’s more in question than just the immediate deliciousness of the fries. The apple probably costs as much, if not more. Realistically, this makes the choice of healthy food over fast food improbable and infrequent for many consumers.

This speaks to a major discrepancy in America. By now it’s no secret that the economy works against most Americans. Not everyone can afford to choose broccoli over a burger. In our country today, the high cost of produce is enough to turn millions away from the farmer’s market, sending people back to the fast food drive-thru. In terms of your health, this may not make a lot of sense, but choosing fast food certainly seems more cost efficient.

Lowering the often inhibiting cost of produce is one of the first steps on the road toward better health for all. Access to food — rather than processed ingredients — shouldn’t be a luxury. All citizens should be able to afford healthy food, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot consumers can do to change this. Making produce more affordable to the masses is something that big companies must do.

In an unexpected move, Wal-Mart has made making healthy foods affordable its priority. In January, the company announced a plan to lower the price of produce and to cut fat, sugar and salt levels in its store brand called Great Value. In addition, Wal-Mart said it would encourage other manufacturers, like Kraft, to do the same. It’s not an empty public relations promise since the company has deadlines. Although far away, Wal-Mart wants everything in place by 2015. Admirable and progressive, this is a move that isn’t characteristically Wal-Mart — a company better known for its poor treatment of employees and displacement of locally-owned stores.

When I first read about Wal-Mart’s initiative, I was almost instantly dismissive. I don’t shop at Wal-Mart. Like many Americans, I don’t care for the way Wal-Mart treats its employees. The company’s signature swoop into small towns, displacing locally-owned stores, is unsettling enough to keep me away from Wal-Mart, however low its prices may be.

But Wal-Mart’s new initiative is a start. It’s hard to deny the importance of good health for all. Wal-Mart prides itself on its low prices and caters to millions of Americans, offering the opportunity — perhaps more than any other superstore — to help change our eating habits. And that’s just what Wal-Mart is addressing with this new plan. Even First Lady Michelle Obama agrees. She was involved in planning the project and has, for the first time, publicly supported a single company. Such an endorsement is meaningful, especially since Obama is so invested in nutrition and fighting the obesity epidemic.

Nationwide, Wal-Mart sells more groceries than any other store. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of the biggest purchasers of food in this country. These two facts alone grant Wal-Mart a significant amount of power. Wal-Mart has the ability to — and does — shape the nation’s eating habits. With this power comes responsibility. Despite its past failures, Wal-Mart is tackling the obesity epidemic in a constructive way. This alone makes me — an avid anti-Wal-Mart girl — want to reconsider my opinion. Any company that addresses the obesity epidemic on such a large and well-considered scale deserves notice.

Mary Demery can be reached at mdemery@umich.edu.

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