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PMA’s Silbermann praises First Lady Obama’s 'food desert' initiative

by Joan Murphy | July 22, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Six retailers that pledged to bring healthier, affordable foods to 10 million people living in so-called ‘food deserts’ is good news for the produce industry, Bryan Silbermann, president and chief executive officer of the Produce Marketing Association, said in a July 21 media call with reporters.

Mr. Silbermann attended a July 20 press conference where First Lady Michelle Obama announced commitments from SuperValu, Walgreens and Walmart, as well as regional grocery chains, to open or expand more than 1,500 stores in communities that do not access to fresh produce and other healthy foods.


Bryan Silbermann, president and CEO of the Produce Marketing Association, with Peter Larkin, president and CEO of the National Grocers Association, and Jeff Brown of Brown's Supercenter. (Photo courtesy of PMA)
“The commitments that you all are making today have the potential to be a game-changer for our kids and for our communities all across this country,” Mrs. Obama said at the White House event July 20.


Walgreens pledged to convert at least 1,000 of its pharmacies into “food oasis” stores that will serve nearly 4.8 million people with whole fruits and vegetables, fruit salads and green salads, along with bread and ready-made meals.

Walmart said it’s planning to open or expand up to 300 stores by 2016 and SuperValu plans to open 250 Save-A-Lot stores over the next five years in areas with limited or no access to healthy foods.

Along with the national chains, Brown’s Super Store said it planned to open a new supermarket in Philadelphia, Calhoun Grocer announced plans to build 10 stores in Alabama and Tennessee, and Klein’s Family Markets pledged to open a new store in Baltimore.

The Obama administration is proposing to spend $335 million in seed money to leverage hundreds of millions more from the private and nonprofit sectors.

 The produce industry has lots to gain from the retailers’ efforts to reach a new market, said Mr. Silbermann, who praised the administration’s tactic of being a catalyst, not only the funder, of efforts between public and private entities to encourage the new market.

“The key thing is the engagement of broad stakeholders,” he said.

Another effort announced at the event, the California FreshWorks Fund, is securing a $200 million public-private partnership loan fund to increase access to healthy, affordable food in that state. Grocery stores, retailers and distributors who meet program guidelines can tap the fund, which is being financed by insurance companies, banks and others, to move healthy foods in food deserts.

When the latest effort is combined with the National Restaurant Association’s KidsLiveWell initiative, a program launched July 13 that encourages healthy food options for children at restaurants, PMA is seeing real progress in offering more fruits and vegetables and it’s the right thing to do, Mr. Silbermann.

But retailers can’t just open stores and fill them with fresh produce, he said. They’ll have to connect with customers and provide good communication in produce departments.

Josie Grossi, a 70-year-old grandmother and a produce manager at a Pennsylvania Shop ‘N Save, introduced the First Lady at the press event.

Ms. Grossi led an effort to hand fresh fruit giveaways instead of bakery goods to children who entered the store -- an example of the importance of store employees in connecting with people in the community, Mr. Silbermann said.