First lady Michele Obama

First lady Michele Obama announces new commitments by food retailers during a White House event that will expand access to healthy, affordable food in underserved areas. Credit: Photo by Susan Polan/APHA

First lady Michele Obama joined forces with major retailers and grocers Wednesday to unveil a new initiative to fight childhood obesity. The companies jointly pledged to open or expand 1,500 grocery stores and supermarkets in communities where nutritious, affordable food is hard to come by.

The administration hopes these stores will help build healthier communities while spurring economic activity and job growth. The expansion will take place over the next five years and serve 9.5 million people.

“The commitments we’re announcing today have the potential to be a game-changer for kids and communities all across this country,” said Obama.

Currently, 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in low-income areas that lack stores likely to sell affordable and healthy foods.

“Bringing grocery stores into impoverished areas is a major step toward reducing premature death and diet-related diseases, including high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity,” said Georges C. Benjamin, MD, FACP, FACEP (E), executive director of APHA, who attended the announcement.

“However, to ensure communities across the country reap the benefits of this important effort, it must be accompanied by other health promotion initiatives that improve surrounding neighborhoods such as offering safe, equitable transportation options and increased education on the value of eating healthy,” said Benjamin.

Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, acknowledged the challenge and cited the tremendous value of having a wide array of private retailers at the table pledging to address the childhood obesity epidemic. Barnes said it is critical that communities work alongside the private sector to meet unique needs of each community.

The first lady called the announcement “just the beginning” and urged all large and small retailers across the country to step up and pledge to expand access to healthy, affordable food in communities that need it the most.

“We want folks to be creative because there’s really no one-size-fits-all solution to this issue here. Every community has different needs and challenges that call for different approaches,” said Obama.

Jeffrey Brown, president and CEO of Brown’s SuperStores in Philadelphia, hailed the initiative and stressed the importance of ensuring that local store owners embrace this idea.

“When you have a family business, their interest in the community is paramount, said Brown. “I believe over the next few years you will see individual entrepreneurs jumping in and joining this effort.”

Earlier this year, the administration released the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the President, which recommended improving access to healthy, affordable food.