Who Benefits When Walmart Funds the Food Movement? | Civil Eats

Who Benefits When Walmart Funds the Food Movement?

Last month’s impressive Black Friday protests at a reported 1,000 Walmart stores highlight the growing movement against the company’s low wage culture. As the nation’s largest private employer, Walmart has done more than any other company to reinforce income inequality. With an average wage of $8.81 per hour, Walmart keeps its labor expenses low by encouraging its employees to rely on charity and sign up for federal benefits such as Supplemental Nutritional Assistance (SNAP).

The corporation’s impacts on the food system are no less troublesome. It has been at the center of the nation’s cheap food structure, forcing a globalization and industrialization that is grounded in a race to the bottom for labor and environmental standards. It has driven out of business an untold number of small food retailers, which were once the heart and soul of community food systems across rural America.

Even in its highly promoted initiatives to sell more local and organic food, Walmart’s procurement practices have often forced greater consolidation in the marketplace, essentially providing a counter-weight to the local food movement.

Now, in a disturbing trend, an increasing number of food and farming nonprofits are relying on the Walmart Foundation to fund their programs. The Milwaukee–based urban agriculture leader Growing Power paved the way when it accepted a seven-figure grant from the Foundation in 2011. Since then, FoodCorps, a service corps program focused on educating kids about healthy food, and the food hub pioneer National Good Food Network (NGFN) have both followed suit.

Neither Food Corps nor NGFN staff responded to our request for comment on their rationales for accepting Walmart funding. In Growing Power’s blog from 2011, however, Will Allen argues: “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.”

We’ve been party to discussions within one unnamed national organization as it decides whether to apply for a $1.5 million grant from Walmart Foundation. In those considerations, we’ve heard crop up one common misconception. Those in favor of accepting Walmart’s money rationalize that the Walmart Foundation and Walmart, Inc. are separate entities. They believe that accepting Walmart Foundation money is not akin to aiding and abetting Walmart.

Nothing could be further from the truth: The Walmart Foundation is Walmart.

First, a bit of context. The gap between corporations and corporate philanthropy has never been narrower. Once upon a time, corporate charity was about expressing a company’s commitment to the communities that it served and about defining its role as a civic leader. But as the value of a company’s brand has become more central to its stock price, managing public perception has taken on greater importance. With that change, corporate charity is no longer a garnish, an optional nicety, but instead sits at the center of the corporate plate, an integral element of a firm’s core business strategy.

As with so much of what it does, Walmart’s approach is much more targeted and brazen than virtually any other company’s giving. It transcends garden-variety reputation-cleansing corporate philanthropy. And the Walmart Foundation and Walmart, Inc. function as a single unit unlike any other corporation and foundation, often using philanthropic donations to push its expansion in urban areas, from which it has been shut out because of labor and environmental concerns. In these cities, Walmart softens up the opposition with a veritable flood of donations.

For example, in Boston, the Foundation increased its grantmaking four-fold in conjunction with a campaign to build new stores. Similar increases were seen in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The donations are accompanied by intensive public relations and lobbying campaigns to build new stores in such neighborhoods as Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

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The donations are intended, according to Occidental College Professor Peter Dreier, as “honest graft,” a term coined in the 19th Century to mean using one’s political and business connections to make a fortune. This is hardly the altruism that Walmart Foundation purports as its grantmaking motivation.

In New York City, this conflict rose to the surface this June, when a majority of New York City Council members signed a letter to Walmart demanding that the Foundation cease making grants there. They wrote: “We know how desperate you are to find a foothold in New York City to buy influence and support here.”

On occasion, the less-than-altruistic nature of these donations shines through. According to one New England-based leader we’ve heard from, former Walmart Foundation President Margaret McKenna once told new Boston-area grantees that she expected that they would ask former Mayor Thomas Menino to drop his resistance to allowing the company to build new stores in Boston. When one of these grantees failed to do so, their grant was not renewed.

The Foundation and the company’s unity also comes across quite clearly when you look at the revolving door between the two entities. Many of the most senior level corporate executives at Walmart, Inc. sit on the Foundation’s Board, underscoring its importance to corporate strategy. Eight of the nine members of the Foundation’s board of directors are current or retired executives in the company, including the chief operating officer of Walmart US, a former CEO, and three executive vice presidents.

The Foundation structures its public relations efforts to clearly benefit the company. After the Walmart Foundation granted multi-million dollar donations to the Food Research and Action Center and Feeding America, the company’s Executive Vice President Leslie Dach and lobbyist Tres Bailey participated in plenaries at the 2010 and 2011 National Anti-Hunger Policy Conferences sponsored by the two organizations. There they sought to establish the company as as a hunger fighter, and take attention away from their low-wage policies.

Similarly, when Food Corps and Growing Power received funds from the Walmart Foundation, they issued joint press releases, putting the Walmart company name and logo on their websites, providing a direct link to the Walmart website.

The seamless nature of the Walmart Foundation and Walmart, Inc. makes it challenging if not impossible to distinguish between these two entities and the purposes that they serve. Any good that organizations do with Walmart Foundation money is offset by the way in which their grants reinforce the company’s egregious practices.

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We empathize with the plights of these organizations as they struggle with whether to accept what can be enormous amounts of money. Fundraising is always challenging, especially when it comes to the large grants that Walmart is able to offer. It can take a clear understanding of the pros and cons of these grants to forego the opportunities provided by millions of dollars.

Yet, we encourage food and farm groups to weigh the political implications of their fundraising practices. It is not enough to consider how a grant benefits a single organization’s programs, no matter how valuable that work may be. What is good for one organization may not be good for the food movement as a whole. We must all start acting as a coherent social movement if we are to ever have a chance of reaching our common goals of creating a sustainable, just, and healthy food system.


Andy Fisher has been a leading force for social justice in the anti-hunger and food movements in the US since the mid 1990s. He co-founded and led the primary American food systems alliance, the Community Food Security Coalition for 17 years. He has played a key role in the growth of farm to school, local food policy, and community food assessments. In 2017, MIT Press published his first book, Big Hunger, which exposed the unholy alliance between corporate America and anti-hunger groups. He has Masters degrees in Environmental Policy and Latin American Studies from UCLA. He is currently the executive director of Eco-Farm. Read more >

Robert Gottlieb is Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy Institute. He is the author and co-author of twelve books and numerous other publications, including Food Justice with Anupama Joshi and Reinventing Los Angeles: Nature and Community in the Global City. He is also the editor of two MIT Press series, "Urban and Industrial Environments" and "Food, Health, and Environment." A long time environmental and social justice activist, Professor Gottlieb has been engaged in researching and participating in social movements for more than 50 years. Read more >

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  1. Fisher and Gottlieb are absolutely correct about Walmart - store and foundation. Once we understand that we must rely nearly fully on grass roots power - votes, choice of stores and brands, support of leader NPOs and NGOs - and stop asking 'money' for money we can make some progress together. Factual, reasoned argument such as this article tied to the reality that 99% of us worldwide are 'in it' together must be the only way to force real change.
  2. Elizabeth Henderson
    Walmart funds programs to train new people to access food stamps, including Walmart employees. Why doesn't Walmart simply spend that money to raise the wages of the employees? Getting them on food stamps is a more effective strategy for keeping those employees in their place - undervalued and disempowered, the way Walmart wants them.
  3. Hank Herrera
    As this nation wrestles again with racism and structural violence that support the lethal behavior of police, this article shines a light on another manifestation of structural violence. We must resist. We must stop it. We must unify to support the demands of the Ferguson Action National Demands. We must unify to form strategy and tactics within the food movement to achieve what we want and how we will get what we want, outside of complicity with the power of money provided by Walmart. They can use their tactics only as long as we let them.
  4. MF
    Rather than admonishing NGFN, FoodCorps and other groups for seeking certain avenues of funding to keep their amazing operations going, I think it would be more helpful if you outlined sources of philanthropy that you feel are good enough for the food movement.

    Further, it would be interesting to outline the annual disbursements of those sources. Would that be enough to cover the cost of a cohesive food movement?

    I say this knowing how difficult it is to find sources of funding whose endowments were not in some way shape or form built through the exploitation of natural resources or people.
  5. Excellent analysis. The reality is that there is no pure , clean money in America. It is all rooted in theft of the land, slavery and exploitation. But Walmart money is particularly filthy. Although the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network serves as a Regional Outreach Training Center (ROTC) for Growing Power, our board wrote a letter to the Growing Power board notifying them that we would not accept a portion of the Walmart money.
  6. Andy Fisher
    I agree with Malik and MF that in our capitalist economy, much if not all of the wealth in this country has been gained through some form of exploitation. A major point behind this article is not that Walmart money is unclean and that groups shouldn't take it because the company gained it through exploiting their workers. Instead, we've sought to communicate that the act of accepting a Walmart grant benefits the company and allows them to continue practices that are anathema to our values as a food movement. The harm being done by Walmart's core business practices as supported by its philanthropy far outweighs the benefits accrued to the public through its grant making.
  7. Ron Cramer
    Guess this fitss under the heading of no good deed goes unpunished! I'm sure those wondering where their next meal will come from do not share the pious, elite attitude so prevalent here. Do you not give significance to the statement early in this article "As the nations largest private employer ..." I imagine most of those employees are happy to have those jobs. Are you saying if research the Walmart Foundation sponsors finds a way to produce food at half the cost of today that you would deprive the hungry of that just to spite Walmart ? If smaller local businesses are driven away because they can't compete it means among other things they can't sell food competitively to those who cannot afford to pay more - should they go hungry?
  8. Laurell Sims
    The Community Food Security Coalition seemed to have no problem accepting money from the Kellogg Foundation under Andy Fischer's leadership. If we use your same analysis, how is accepting money from Kellogg more acceptable? Growing Power has stayed consistent in its message to work with and engage all groups knowing that broad sweeping change will come from many directions and that everyone needs a seat at the table. What a privilege to take "dirty money" while at the same time calling out the leading people of color led farming organization for doing the same thing.
  9. As stated by Malik Yakini and others within this discussion thread, the contamination of capital in this country is so pervasive that it seems counter-productive to engage in these arguments. Even if one accepts Malik's logic that Walmart's money is "particularly filthy", by what measure is this being made? Is it because the company is currently active in its exploitation and that its business model includes food? I watched a documentary recently about Firestone's past actions in the West African country of Liberia and how it enabled the bloody civil war there that tour the nation apart, setting it back for generations. Since years have passed and the product is tires, is it okay for the food movement to take grants from Firestone?
  10. Even while I am instinctively and on principle in agreement with this article, my position is that our goal should be to move beyond philanthropy altogether as the primary source of capital for our work. These contradictions in values will continue to plague as all long as there is so much of a gap between real world accountability of our operational models and the impact we wish to have. While not being an absolutist, I believe we must shift more of our initiatives away from the non-profit realm to other structures that force us to find sustainability in earned revenue or non-grant funding. It seems more productive to put our energy and thinking in this direction rather than policing each other for gradations of compromise. #nostones
  11. Gerald Holdman
    This is a really good article at pointing fingers, hiding behind academia veil, and using the internet as a rage engine.

    Let's peel back your critical reasoning falsities, get a does of reality and avoid confusing people who rely on the media for all knowledge:
    1. If people did not want to work for Walmart, they wouldn't. It is not the only job available.
    2. If the people who you claim are being taken of advantage of could make more than $8.50 an hour....they would go to those jobs.
    3. If people like you really cared about the people you are writing about, you do something about it. Go establish a foundation to give them the financial support you are claiming Walmart fails to do and spend your time seeking funds to support them.
  12. Valentine
    Ron, people aren't hungry because food is too expensive--it's less expensive in the U.S. than in most places, and most of history--they're hungry because they don't have resources for food access (money, time, land), and part of what Andy & Robert point out is that WalMart's operating procedures continue the kinds of dispossession that led to this situation, *knowingly* (as shown by explicit dependence of food stamps, gardening, etc.).

    The authors HAVE been part of the move to try to figure out new funding strategies, and as a call for that conversation to continue, this is really welcome. While we are forging new civil rights relationships now, can we get together behind orgs like the Rural Coalition, Foodchain Workers, Southern Co-ops?
  13. Laurell Sims
    The Community Food Security Coalition seemed to have no problem accepting money from the Kellogg Foundation under Andy Fischer’s leadership. If we use Mr. Fischer's same analysis regarding the thin line between corporations and their foundations, how is accepting money from Kellogg more acceptable or justified? Growing Power has stayed consistent in its message to work with and engage all groups knowing that broad sweeping change will come from many directions and that everyone needs a seat at the table. What a privilege to take “dirty foundation money” both for organizational funding and as a personal fellowship, while at the same time calling out the leading people of color led farming organization for doing the same thing.
  14. fern gale Estrow
    Transparency and making conscious choices applies at a personal, professional and institutional level. I value the dialogue.
  15. Valentine
    I want to add thanks for making more legible the role of corporate philanthropy in selling the BRAND and its accompanying investment potential. Thinking about the stomach-wrenching calculus you describe about whether to take this money made me think about the impact a food movement could have in holding companies like Walmart--or their replacements that COULD do this--accountable for contributing to real livelihoods. If we could build an economy where employers could not get away with poverty wages and where employment MEANT food security, think about how much less philanthropy we would need!

    One step to get us closer? Let's stop accepting that this economy can't happen. If we didn't allow poverty wages, they wouldn't be there to compete.
  16. Donal
    Ron Cramer's argument is pretty much the definition of exploitation. Limited choices result in desperate decisions, or, I'm going to create lots of extremely poor paying jobs for people with limited choices so that I can use a tiny fraction of the savings to give to another group of desperate people so I look like I have a social conscious. I say forget about the pseudo-philanthropy and pay your people a living wage; the real outcome would be astoundingly beneficial for the people, the country and society as a whole.
  17. The commenters who think that the authors are arguing that organizations should reject Walmart Foundation grants because the money is dirty have missed the point. The argument is that organizations need to be wary about accepting Walmart money because it is not being offered out of altruism. The organiztions receiving money are being used in Walmart's efforts to expand into areas where it has been shut out. If an organization refuses to be used in this effort, its grant is not renewed. They are warning that accepting grant money comes with an obligation to help Walmart in its expansion and that this is not in the interests of the organizations accepting the grants or of the food movement as a whole.
  18. Andy Fisher
    With regards to Laurell's comments, the Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) and Kellogg Inc have a very different relationship than Walmart and Walmart Foundation. WKKF is not a company-based foundation like Walmart Foundation is. It may share the same name, but it is a completely separate entity and its grantmaking is not used by the Company to promote its products. In fact WKKF has funded some of the most progressive racial equity and social justice in the country, unlike Walmart.
    Re Gerald's comments, CFSC under my leadership gained passage of federal legislation that established two grants programs that have given out about $100 million to community food security projects.
  19. Dorothy Griswold
    Thank you Kwabena for pushing this discussion in a positive direction. I agree totally that we need to find ways to fund the food movement by moving away from philanthropy and toward earned revenue. I believe the article written by AF and RG was a necessary step in moving our thinking about these issues. Thank you! Now, the productive thing to do is to move forward with finding markets for good food movement entrepreneurs who are pricing their products high enough to pay every person involved in the process fair wages. This would be a huge step toward moving away from reliance on Philanthropy.

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