NEW YORK – Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president of the nation’s largest health philanthropy, says Wal-Mart’s pledge to reduce the salt and sugar content in the food it sells is an important step toward curbing childhood obesity.
“I’m heartened that Wal-Mart is making a commitment to healthier food that is also affordable,” said Lavizzo-Mourey, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in a telephone conversation following a visit to Bloomberg News headquarters in New York.
Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart said it will reduce salt content in its food products by 25 percent and sugar content by 10 percent. It also will remove all remaining industrially produced trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils.
The retail giant said it will also reduce prices on fresh fruit and vegetables so customers can save about $1 billion a year.
“It’s demonstrating leadership that we would like other companies to follow,” said Lavizzo-Mourey, who has made battling childhood obesity a major cause at the foundation.
A Harvard Medical School-trained physician, Lavizzo-Mourey, 56, said she hoped that Wal-Mart would reach its goal in “faster than five years.”
The world’s largest retailer’s pledge to reformulate thousands of its food products was a response to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to curb childhood obesity. About 72.5 million American adults and 12 million children suffer from this condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The Princeton, N.J.-based foundation has pledged to fund an independent evaluation of more than 70 food producers to see if they keep promises made last year to cut 1 trillion calories from their products by 2012 and 1.5 trillion by 2015. The companies include large producers such as PepsiCo, Kraft Foods and Kellogg.
“We’re holding their feet to the fire,” Lavizzo-Mourey said over lunch at Bloomberg. “Once you start seeing the large grocery-store chains and big retailers saying that this is an important way to add value and to be responsive to their customers, that’s when I’ll feel like there’s real momentum.”
Since becoming the head of the U.S.’s fourth-largest foundation with about $8.5 billion in assets, Lavizzo-Mourey has sought to reverse childhood obesity by encouraging schools to provide healthier food and more physical activity for students.
In 2007, the foundation committed $500 million toward curbing the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015.
Lavizzo-Mourey said she was happy to see the passage of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 last month that provides extra funding for better school meals and stricter nutrition standards.
“One of the things that we long recognized in the fight to reverse child obesity is that you have to make schools healthier places,” she said.