In an event at the White House, Walgreen Co. announced a commitment to convert or open at least 1,000 "food oasis" drug stores nationwide over the next five years.

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Walgreens makes 'food oasis' commitment

July 20th, 2011
Michelle Obama said access to healthy foods is key to fighting childhood obesity.

DEERFIELD, Ill. – In an event at the White House, Walgreen Co. announced a commitment to convert or open at least 1,000 "food oasis" drug stores nationwide over the next five years.

Walgreens said Wednesday that the plan is being done in conjunction with efforts by first lady Michelle Obama and the Partnership for a Healthier America to fight the rise in childhood obesity and provide better food options and accessible health care to underserved communities.

The food oasis stores offer a bigger selection of groceries and fresh food in so-called "food desert" neighborhoods, which have a dearth of supermarkets.

Walgreens president and chief executive officer Greg Wasson appeared at the White House on Wednesday with Michelle Obama and others to support the goals of Let's Move! and the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity. The task force aims to marshal public and private sector resources to make it easier for all Americans to have access to healthy and affordable foods.

The drug chain reported that research has shown that the 23.5 million Americans, including 6.5 million children, live in food deserts and face a much higher risk of suffering from obesity, diabetes and cancer. 

Walgreens chief executive Greg Wasson (center) attended the White House event.

"With more than 45% of our stores located in areas that don't have access to fresh food, Walgreens is uniquely positioned to bring more food options to Americans and also provide needed pharmacy, health and wellness services directly in those communities," Wasson stated.

In her comments at the White House, Michelle Obama noted that improved access to nutritious food can make a big difference in tackling the obesity epidemic.

"If a parent wants to pack a piece of fruit in a child's lunch, if a parent wants to add some lettuce for a salad at dinner, they shouldn't have to take three city buses or pay some expensive taxi to go to another community to make that possible," the first lady said.

"Instead, they should have fresh food retailers right in their communities — places that sell healthy food at reasonable prices so that they can feed their families in the way that they see fit. Because when they have those choices, that can have a real, measurable impact on a family's health, and we all know that," she explained. "Studies have shown that people who live in communities with greater access to supermarkets eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, and they have lower rates of obesity."

Last August, Walgreens opened 10 food oasis stores on Chicago's South and West Sides. The redesigned locations included more than 750 new food items, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, frozen meat and fish, pasta, rice, beans, eggs, whole grain cereal and other healthy meal components — boosting the food selection by as much as 60%.

And late last month, the drug chain unveiled a plan to double the number of food oasis stores in the Chicago area by 2012 and then double that number again in 2013 to reach a total of nearly 50.

Earlier this month, Walgreens also announced that it has converted a drug store in San Francisco's Bayview community to the food oasis format. The retailer said that the Bayview location is its first store in the San Francisco Bay area undergo the food oasis redesign and that, by the fall, it plans to open stores with expanded food selections in food deserts in Oakland and Berkeley, Calif.

The company added that it's also well-positioned among retailers to combine its expanded grocery offering in food desert communities with convenient access to prescription drug and health and wellness services, including immunizations, via its nationwide network of pharmacies, which in some locations include Take Care Clinics that provide basic health care services and health screenings on a walk-in basis. 

Other retailers also are teaming up with the first lady to make groceries more accessible by opening or expanding locations over the next five years in low-income areas that lack stores selling affordable, nutritious foods.  Chains planning to do so include Walmart (up to 300 stores), Supervalu (250 stores) Brown's Super Stores (two locations), Calhoun Enterprises (10 stores) and Klein's Family Markets (one location).