Why Walmart's money helps more than it hurts
I don’t dispute the problematic nature of Walmart’s million-dollar donation to the urban agriculture group Growing Power. It certainly feels wrong to give a corporation with a questionable relationship to food reform such a prime opportunity for positive PR. As Andy Fisher, co-founder of the Community Food Security Coalition said of Walmart on Civil Eats:
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.
Walmart’s attempts at “buying its way in” to the Good Food Movement feels intrusive. And there is something ominous about the idea that Growing Power could find itself relying on the kindness of Walmart to make its payroll. At the same time, we shouldn’t be so shocked by this development: There is an obvious motivation behind Walmart’s act of charity.
According to the Milwaukee Business Journal, which reported the donation, Walmart has plans to build 15 stores in the southern Wisconsin area — not very far from Growing Power’s Milwaukee location. The math (from Walmart’s perspective) is simple: It’s spending $1 million for community goodwill that will, it hopes, defuse the kinds of grassroots hostility that can arise in communities when a multinational chain moves in and all but decimates the small businesses in the area.
Burnishing images is the primary motivation behind corporate giving — it always has been. That was true for Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller in the late 19th and early 20th century, and it was true for Philip Morris, Texaco, and Exxon in the 1970s and 80s.
This time, Walmart is engaged in a multidimensional campaign to re-make itself as an ally of those trying to reform the food system. As Bridget Huber details in The Nation, Walmart’s efforts to “eliminate food deserts” have largely been a means to gain a foothold in urban areas like New York and Chicago.
But as high as the stakes may be, a dollar is a dollar, no matter where it comes from. In her recent post on this topic, Michele Simon quotes author Christopher Cook, who believes Walmart should be red-lined out of involvement with the food movement entirely. Instead, he says, “[w]e need a strongly united movement pushing aggressively for public investment in the great and vital work of Growing Power and other groups.”
I presume Cook is talking about government programs funded by taxpayer money. Taxpayer money comes from … taxpayers, including highly profitable corporations like Walmart. Money “laundered” through the U.S. Treasury is apparently clean, while funds moved through non-profits like Growing Power are not. But as I see it, we have to live with the redistributionist policies we have, not the ones we want. And sometimes that means taking money from unpalatable sources.
It can certainly be disheartening to see a small set of corporations make the decisions about how funding should be directed to improve the general welfare of society, especially when the ulterior motive is so plain. And yet, more and more, it feels as if the previous sentence describes our federal government just as well as it describes corporate philanthropy.
Michele Simon makes a good point in comparing Walmart to tobacco companies, which have a history of underwriting nonprofits that work among their target markets. And Walmart is surely following their playbook. At the same time, of all the food movement pioneers, Will Allen is possibly the most inclusive and least confrontational of them all. Growing Power has always worked with corporations both for funding and for their projects. It is entirely in character for him to accept a donation from Walmart.
In her critique, Simon asks, “What happens next year, when Allen needs more money, and Walmart ups the ante?” in a way that assumes the nonprofit will keep quiet and play along. But I have more hope in Allen. And I have a hunch that he’s rooted the nonprofit in a set of values that will ensure Growing Power’s ultimate fidelity to its core belief: equitable access to healthy food.
I wonder if much of the response to this donation is really an expression of the frustration many on the left feel over Walmart’s domination of the retail and corporate food landscape — and the way they’ve been allowed entry into the world of food reform. The sight of Michelle Obama standing beside Walmart CEO Bill Simon and touting the company’s contributions to the movement cut advocates deep.
But the success of Walmart in all its endeavors is as much a story about the diminishing of the labor movement — a shift engineered by over a century of hard work by corporate America. And their hegemony won’t end any time soon.
Will Allen should take Walmart’s money and do great things with it. But that doesn’t mean the fight against Walmart can’t or won’t continue.