World and Nation

New Wal-Mart program aims to enhance food sustainability

Walmart announced an initiative Monday to reduce the environmental impact of the food it sells and help its customers improve the nutrition in their diets.

The retailer is the nation’s largest grocer, and food is its biggest business. So it has enormous clout with food producers and big food processing companies — influence that it can use, for example, to sway how much water is used to produce a crop, or shorten the distance a load of strawberries is shipped, thus reducing consumption of fossil fuels.

“What’s become clearer and clearer is that we have a real challenge globally around feeding the world’s growing population in a way that doesn’t cut down every last tree and use every last drop of water,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, senior vice president for global sustainability at Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart’s new effort to enhance sustainability has four legs: reducing the overall cost of food, including its environmental footprint; increasing access to more nutritious food; making it easier for its customers to eat healthier foods; and improving food safety, with greater transparency about where food comes from and how it is produced.

The company has been working with a variety of partners, ranging from nonprofit groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and Feeding America to big food manufacturers like General Mills and PepsiCo, as well as agricultural businesses like Monsanto and Cargill.

To reduce food waste, Wal-Mart has begun developing more ways to use a “whole crop” in its private label food production and placing an emphasis on more efficient ordering to reduce spoilage.

It also is working to make healthier foods more broadly accessible through lower prices and building stores in food deserts. McLaughlin said Wal-Mart would supply 4 billion more meals to needy people over the next five years with greater donations to food banks and by working with schools and other institutions to help them figure out what equipment they need to prepare and store more fresh foods.

Through organizations like 4H and the American Heart Association, the company will offer education on how to shop for fruits and vegetables and how to prepare them. It plans to track that program by counting the number of meals that consumers getting such information prepare at home as well as whether fruit and vegetable consumption increases.

“We want to democratize healthy eating,” McLaughlin said. “You shouldn’t have to pay more to eat something nutritious.”