Growing Power Takes Massive Contribution from Wal-Mart: A Perspective on Money and the Movement

Everyone hates fundraising. I am one of those rare souls who actually likes it, but I know how time-consuming, disheartening, and frustrating it can be. Having been the main fundraiser for the Community Food Security Coalition (CFSC) for 14 years, I am intimately familiar with the realities of non-profit fundraising. So, the recent news that Growing Power was accepting a million dollar donation from Wal-Mart was not so surprising. A million clams is, as they say in D.C., “real money.”

All organizations have to make decisions about from whom they are willing to take money and under what terms. Some groups will take money from any corporation that gives it to them, believing that they can do better things with the money than the company can. Other organizations are more selective, only taking money from those aligned with their mission. Yet Growing Power’s acceptance of this contribution and CEO Will Allen’s statement on his blog present some crucial dilemmas for the movement. Will writes: “We, as a society, can no longer refuse to invite big corporations to the table of the Good Food Revolution… We can no longer be so idealistic that we hurt the very people we’re trying to help. Keeping groups that have the money and the power to be a significant part of the solution away from the Good Food Revolution will not serve us.”

Let’s unpack this situation first by looking at Wal-Mart. It is the largest food retailer in America capturing one of every three grocery dollars spent. Yet, Wal-Mart has little room for growth in suburban and rural communities. Urban areas remain its great untapped market. The company has been kept out of cities because of concerns about its labor and environmental practices and its negative impacts on independent stores.

Wal-Mart has adopted a sophisticated and integrated business strategy, employing both highly publicized but modest changes to their practices and their enormous philanthropic capacity to co-opt opposition to their entry into cities. Earlier this year, the Boston Globe reported on this practice: “She [the new Executive Director of Wal-Mart Foundation] has also become an ambassador for the world’s most powerful retail machine, helping to burnish its image and lay the groundwork for its push into urban markets–including Boston.”

“Such charitable giving shows how sophisticated Wal-Mart has become in wooing communities,” said Russ Davis, executive director of MA Jobs with Justice. ‘They’re throwing a lot of money around,” Davis said. “They have a desire to buy goodwill, and for actual business and political decisions to happen as a result.”

In the other part of this strategy, Wal-Mart claims to be changing its operating practices to accommodate our movement’s concerns. They announced that they will start buying produce from local farmers. They’ll discount their produce and reformulate their house brands to reduce sodium. And, they’ll even build more stores in urban food deserts.

Looking behind Wal-Mart’s press releases, we find significant reason for skepticism—and little transparency—about these claims. It is common knowledge that Wal-Mart demands its suppliers to charge them rock bottom prices, which are not economically viable for family scale farmers. With regards to sodium reduction in their products, one highly placed official at Kraft told me, “Wal-Mart is far behind the competition. Other food manufacturers have been working in this area for years.” With regards to their apparently altruistic intentions to build in food deserts, this is little more than a Trojan horse packaged in shiny PR gift wrap.

Back to Growing Power’s blog: Will claims that Wal-Mart can be a “significant part of the solution.”

A solution to what problem? Wal-Mart’s and the “Good Food Revolution’s” interests may dovetail in bringing groceries into food deserts. However, the broader interests of these two parties are in direct opposition to each other. Wal-Mart’s operations cause larger problems to the food security of the communities in which they locate:

• The spectre of Wal-Mart moving into urban areas has other supermarket chains running scared, leading them to demand cutbacks in wages and benefits of their unionized workers across America.

• Wal-Mart is undermining the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ campaign to improve farmworker conditions in the tomato fields of South Florida.

• Every new store further skews the concentration of wealth in the country; the combined fortune of the heirs of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton total $87 billion, over $30 billion more than Bill Gates.

• Each Wal-Mart store, averaging 200 employees, costs taxpayers approximately $420,750 annually in public social services used by store employees. Multiplied by the chain’s 3,800 stores, this translates into a burden on taxpayers of $1.6 billion annually.

Given the tight funding environment, NGO boards and executive directors are often faced with compromises that they wish they didn’t have to confront. They are often forced to become pawns in someone else’s game in order to meet their organizational needs. That is just the reality of fundraising in a society where corporations control much of the wealth.

Nonetheless, we in the movement don’t have to define our game as including those entities whose practices undermine our long-term goals, despite the convergence in short-term more narrowly defined objectives. In plain language, Wal-Mart is NOT part of the “Good Food Revolution,” because at the end of the day it hurts communities more than it helps them.

Let’s not be so idealistic about the power relations between our movement and multi-national corporations that, as Will Allen, says, “We hurt the very people we’re trying to help.”

21 thoughts on “Growing Power Takes Massive Contribution from Wal-Mart: A Perspective on Money and the Movement

  1. Here’s the real issue with Growing Power: The organization tells folks it offers a viable economic model for creating a commercial food production operation in cities. Yet selling greens, aquaculture-grown fish, and worms has not proven a moneymaker for nearly anyone. This fact is discussed by many nonprofits. This might be a good model for growing food in backyards for the producers’ consumption, but let’s not further eco-gimmickry, grant dependence and lost leaders for “green jobs” creation. This show biz consumes the bandwidth we need to dedicate to real solutions.

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  3. Thank you for this article. It’s great that Growing Power is getting needed resources (although Carol I’m intrigued by your comment that they’re essentially show-biz), but it’s so true that the Wal-Marts of the world hurt the people we’re trying to help. We CANNOT lose sight of that. Hard, or impossible as it may be to turn down a million bucks.

    Hope GP can squeeze some real jobs/progress/efficiency or whatever they need to improve their practice out of that bribe.

  4. This is too true. We can attempt to see it from the perspective of the individual who may be empowered to grow a portion of their own food, co-educated by the programming of Growing Power. But that one person is usurped by a handful of others who forgo the food movement – both bypassing the investment of home-grown food and neglecting to purchase from local growers – because Wal-Mart provides a price and one-stop-consumer-loop-station to seemingly resolve all the “problems” of buying and sourcing goods. This article touched on some huge issues like labor rights, but it also could have mentioned the waste stream that Wal-Mart makes which is completely out of sync with the Good Food Revolution. If you can’t beat ‘em, joining ‘em is not going to solve the problem either. Wal-Mart needs to be decentralized.

  5. I’m confused about Andy’s statement that a Wal-Mart store costs tax-payers in a community, on average, $420,750 per location, due to the toll on public social services. Yes, taxes are taxes and times are hard, Isn’t providing Wal-Mart workers with public social services a positive thing?

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  13. If any of you have ever worked at Growing Power. And I mean worked on salary(if you can even call their wages a salary) not volunteer, Walmart is donating to an organization that follows the same employment practices as them. I worked for Growing Power over the summer and I would have preferred working for Walmart. At least I would have received an honest paycheck.

    Take a look at this blog that compiles a synopsis of previous GP employees.

    http://moriareynolds.com/growing-power

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  19. Wal-Mart is, by its corporate structure and scale, thoroughly contrary to the broader aims of food sovereignty and security.

    Nonprofit organizations become part of the problem when salary needs of their middle class staffs override the integrity of their missions.

    Here’s a cartoon I designed to dramatize the difference between corporate and regional food systems: