Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, the president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the largest health philanthropy in the U.S., said Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’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,” Lavizzo-Mourey said in a telephone conversation following a visit to Bloomberg News headquarters in New York.
“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.
Wal-Mart said on Jan. 20 that it will also reduce prices on fresh fruit and vegetables so customers can save about $1 billion a year.
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 Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer 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 faster it can get these healthier changes implemented, the more quickly we can begin to see the health consequences,” she said.
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 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The Princeton, New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson 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 Inc., Kraft Foods Inc. and Kellogg Co.
“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.
Celebrity chefs who promote healthier food choices such as the U.K.’s Jamie Oliver and U.S. restaurateur Mario Batali could help steer those who dine out toward healthier menus. Batali launched a foundation about three years ago partly to encourage healthier eating.
“I sign onto Twitter.com in the mornings to see what people are talking about, and Jamie Oliver’s show is one of the things that’s often mentioned,” Lavizzo-Mourey said about the Emmy Award-winning “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution.”
“We don’t know if chefs have made a substantial dent, but people are looking for leadership in this area,” she said.
To contact the writer on this story: Patrick Cole in New York at pcole3@Bloomberg.net.
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