Walmart Makes You Fat


While we were were off blaming McDonald’s for the obesity epidemic, Walmart snuck in there.
A newly published study in the Journal of Urban Economics tracked extensive health and population data between 1996 and 2005, a period in which 1,569 Walmart supercenters, with their in-store supermarkets, opened across the U.S. The researchers found that one new Walmart supercenter per 100,000 residents boosted the obesity rate by 2.3 percentage points—2,300 people from the store’s vicinity who weren’t obese ended up in that category after a superstore opened.

Instead of a single, causal link between Walmart stores and weight gain, it’s theorized that there is a whole range of factors.
First up is the most obvious—Walmart lowers the price of food, allowing customers to buy more. Walmart is notorious for the penny-pinching way it squeezes suppliers, and it’s estimated that a region’s food prices drop by between 8 and 27 per cent across the board when a supercenter moves in. The biggest impact is felt in the pricing of processed foods from large-scale manufacturers, where Walmart tends to have its firmest price advantage. Competitors cut their prices in response to a new Walmart, so area residents can end up paying less for their food without even setting foot in the supercenter.

Inevitably, some smaller markets will fail: a 2003 Wall Street Journal article showed that 25 out of 29 supermarket bankruptcies in the previous decade had been caused by the arrival of a Walmart. When the smaller mom-and-pops disappear, neighborhoods become less walkable. Locals are walking less and spending more time in front of screens—a study of Walmart’s product offerings showed that the availability of discounted video games and DVDs has an influence over leisure activities. And since they now have to pile into a car and drive a greater distance, Walmart supercenter shoppers tend to buy groceries less frequently. Shelf-stable processed foods become the practical choice over fresh but highly perishable meat and dairy, fruits and vegetables.

Baby steps in the right direction
We’re not ready to sing the praises of a a big box, marketplace brute, but to Walmart’s credit, the company has announced a five-year plan to improve the nutritional values of its store brands, cut prices for whole foods and vegetables, and open stores in low-income areas that are currently  food deserts with little access to supermarkets.

Walmart is the country’s largest food seller, visited each week by nearly one-third of the U.S. population. It’s capable of spurring dramatic changes by harnessing its marketplace muscle in service of an agenda. In the past the company has chosen to apply its bounteous brute force to grinding suppliers into the dust, crushing the dreams of independent proprietors, and propagating exploitative, discriminatory, union-busting employment practices. Let’s see what happens when the retail giant sets out to do some good.




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One Response to Walmart Makes You Fat

  1. G Martin says:

    Interesting post. Those of us who live on a tight food budget welcome low food prices. For some seniors, lower food prices can mean that they may not have to make a painful choice between buying food or buying their prescription medicine. For many others, lower food prices can make the difference between eating and not eating. As food prices continue to jump I am growing more and more concerned that we will see a rise in crime along with it. People have to eat, and as the price of food goes up, many will find it more and more difficult to feed themselves and their families. Hungry, desperate people can be very, very dangerous. If WalMart can help get food prices low, then more families will be able to eat.

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