Did Walmart Buy Growing Power’s Silence for a Million Dollars?

Cross-posted from Appetite for Profit.

Last week retail behemoth Walmart announced a $1.01 million donation to Milwaukee-based Growing Power, a well-known nonprofit whose founder Will Allen has gained much 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 causes that could cause them trouble is a time-honored tradition of Corporate America, and this is the just the latest installment. The tobacco industry saw great success with sponsorships of women’s causes (Virginia Slims tennis anyone?) and both the tobacco and alcohol industries have bought off Latino groups along with plenty of others, as I’ve described before.

It’s easy to justify taking this sort of money. 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, almost any donation can be justified.

But what happens when 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 had no problem with the deal as long as Walmart didn’t ask for a seat on Growing Power’s board. 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: they have set the table, and left a stinking mess for us to clean up.

Has Corporate America really been left out of the conversation about our food supply? My book was inspired by the response of the food industry to the criticism being leveled against them. Responses in the form of a massive public relations campaign designed to convince the American public and policymakers alike that they have it covered.

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.

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, posting to a list-serve that such donations are “not only tainted but tied to political allegiance with the corporate agenda.” He goes on:

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.

See also Andy Fisher’s excellent critique on Civil Eats concluding 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.”

Let’s get to work.