Leading US retailers including Wal-Mart Stores, SuperValu Inc and Walgreens have committed to opening stores in low-income areas as part of an initiative with the Partnership for a Healthier America and First Lady Michelle Obama.

The retailers, and a number of regional operators, are set to open new stores or expand existing outlets in a bid to provide consumers in so-called “food deserts” with more access to healthier food.

Overall, 1,500 stores will be opened or expanded in the food deserts – neighbourhoods with limited or no immediate access to healthier foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables and meat.

By 2016, Wal-Mart has committed to build or expand up to 300 stores. Supervalu plans to open 250 new outlets, while drugstore operator Walgreens has pledged to expand its food offering to include fresh fruit and vegetables and other healthy options in around 1,000 stores.

The Partnership for a Healthier America, an NGO set up last year to tackle child obesity, said yesterday (20 July) that 23.5m Americans live in low-income areas that lack stores likely to sell affordable and nutritious foods. Of these 23.5m, approximately 11.5m are living in households with incomes at or below the poverty line. “These new and expanded stores will provide nearly 10m Americans with the ability to purchase fresh, nutritious foods close to home,” it said.

“The commitments we’re announcing today have the potential to be a game-changer for kids and communities all across this country,” Obama said. “We can give people all the information and advice in the world about healthy eating and exercise, but if parents can’t buy the food they need to prepare those meals because their only options for groceries are the gas station or the local minimart, then all that is just talk.”

Commenting on the announcement, Wal-Mart’s VP of corporate affairs, Leslie Dach, said: “By opening stores where customers need them most, Walmart will help build healthier families and stronger communities. We believe every single person should have access to an abundant selection of fresh fruits and vegetables at an affordable price. First Lady Michelle Obama is helping millions of Americans lead healthier lives, and Walmart is proud to partner with her in this work. The First Lady’s leadership on products, prices and access to healthier food has helped sharpen our focus on bringing affordable groceries to underserved urban and rural areas.”

Other retailers have also committed to the plan, with Brown’s Super Stores, Calhoun Enterprises and Klein’s Family Markets all committing to open stores.