Photo of Walmart register courtsey of Walmart stores and photo of Growing Power greenhouse courtsey of grfray. Last week, retail behemoth Walmart announced a $1.01 million donation to Milwaukee-based Growing Power, a well-known urban farming nonprofit, whose founder Will Allen has gained many accolades for his hard work to bring local, healthy food to low-income areas.
So far the online debate over Growing Power taking this funding is predictable: Some defend it for pragmatic reasons, while others deplore the move, either because they don't like this particular company or they think all corporate money is evil. However, this donation cannot be viewed in such a narrow context. There is a pattern here that spans decades. By partnering with a group that could otherwise be one of its staunchest critics, Walmart is taking a page right out of the Big Tobacco playbook: buying silence.
Philanthropy to win over potential critics is a time-honored tradition in Corporate America, and this is the just the latest installment. The tobacco industry saw great success with sponsorships of women's causes (Philip Morris promoted its support of women's shelters in ads, for instance) and both the tobacco and alcohol industries have simultaneously made significant donations to Latino groups while heavily targeting them with advertising. In fact, they've done the same with a number of other minority groups, as I've described before.
Of course Growing Power needs the cash and will do good things with it. It's understandable, in these hard times, how the group could justify taking it. Why not put a corporation's profits to good use? Viewed in that narrow frame, there's logic in taking almost any donation.
But what happens if Walmart's pledge made earlier this year -- with the first lady by their side -- to sell more fresh produce at affordable prices, falls through (or squeezes farmers), as it inevitably will? What happens next year, when Allen needs more money, and Walmart ups the ante? One colleague I spoke to says he has no problem with the deal, as long as Walmart doesn't ask for a seat on Growing Power's board. But they just might.
It's not at all clear where Growing Power is drawing the line. On their blog, Allen defends the move by arguing that we "can no longer refuse to invite big corporations to the table of the Good Food Revolution."
Invite them to the table? These corporations -- McDonald's, PepsiCo, Kraft, and especially Walmart -- have already been to the table: In fact, they have set the table.
Corporate America can hardly claim that it's been left out of the conversation about our food supply. My book, Appetite for Profit, was inspired by the retaliation the food industry has leveled against its critics. Retaliation in the form of a massive public relations campaign designed to convince the American public and policymakers alike that they have the public's interest in mind.
McDonald's pushing cheeseburgers and fries? No problem, now they sell salads. General Mills promoting sugary cereals to kids? Enter whole grain Reese's Puffs. Not enough access to fresh food in poor areas? Walmart to the rescue.
Meanwhile, any policy effort to reform the food system in more meaningful ways is resisted by these same companies with powerful lobbying campaigns. Walmart is no exception to this pattern. Last year, the retail chain's lobbying expenditures topped $6 million.
Christopher Cook (author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis -- which I highly recommend) recently hit the nail on the head. He posted to a list-serve arguing that such donations are "not only tainted but tied to political allegiance with the corporate agenda." He went on to say:
The PR and influence that Walmart and others gain from this "charitable giving" expands their corporate power and their market control -- the very things that are directly undermining our food system, sustainability, and food access and justice. These corporations are a huge part of precisely why we are in such deep trouble with our food today. It's not just about "tainted" dollars, it's about how these corporations will profit (and they will) both economically and politically by buying market share in the food justice movement.
Andy Fisher, former head of the Community Food Security Coalition, also wrote an excellent critique on Civil Eats, where he concluded that Walmart cannot possibly be part of the solution to our broken food system because the company "hurts communities more than it helps them." So what then, I hear many asking, is the alternative given that the money is still sorely needed? Cook offers an admittedly more challenging solution: "We need a strongly united movement pushing aggressively for public investment in the great and vital work of Growing Power and other groups."
I agree. Let's get to work.
Michele Simon is a public health lawyer specializing in industry marketing and lobbying tactics. She is the author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back. She is grateful to live in Oakland, Calif., within walking distance of a farmers market.