Op-Ed: The Problem with Walmart’s Hunger Games

The retailer’s annual anti-hunger competition is more about good PR and access to consumer data than feeding the poor.

Improving wages and benefits would do more to fight hunger than any competition. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images)

May 1, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Anna Lappé is a national best-selling author, co-founder of the Small Planet Institute and Small Planet Fund, and Director of Food MythBusters.

Last night, Walmart, the nation’s largest grocer, announced the winners of its annual Fighting Hunger Together contest, in which local food banks and anti-hunger organizations compete for $3 million in grants from the retail giant. The competition couldn’t come at a more urgent time: Fifty million Americans live in food insecure households; nearly 17 million of those are children.

But if Walmart were serious about fighting hunger, it would look at its own business model, which secures profits by cutting its 1.3 million workers’ wages, hours, and benefits. In the meantime, contests like this one do little to address the roots of hunger, but are designed instead to generate positive media coverage for Walmart and give the company unprecedented access to consumers while pitting community against community.

Mark Winne, one of the nation’s leading anti-hunger voices and Senior Advisor to the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University, said, “A competition like this is designed to do nothing more than provide the maximum exposure and goodwill for its sponsors.”

As the contest unfolds, 301 anti-hunger organizations selected by Walmart compete against each other—like the “tributes” in Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic Hunger Games trilogy. This competition plays out on Facebook, where people are encouraged to vote once a day all month long. It’s a contest structure that incentivizes organizations to push supporters to interact frequently with Facebook, linking Walmart’s online presence to the noble values of those nonprofits. “Walmart gains legitimacy and brand appeal from this association,” explained David Taylor, a social media expert interviewed for this article. “But I would guess most food bank supporters aren’t interested in becoming an advertising channel for Walmart.”

By offering potential grants of $25,000 or $40,000 in hundreds of communities nationwide, the company discourages negative press while winning free media. On April 8, just one week into the competition, more than 46 local news outlets had already posted “news” about the contest, encouraging votes for local contenders. The contest has gotten positive press in the national media, too, including coverage from USA Today.

The competition is also designed to give Walmart access to valuable consumer data. To participate, you must download a Facebook app and agree to a 4,552-word privacy policy, giving Walmart access to your “public profile [including name, profile picture, age range, gender, language, and other public information], friend list, email address and likes.” Walmart says this data is used to “support our core business functions,” which really means the company is using it to learn how to sell you more.

Professor Mara Einstein, the author of Compassion Inc.: How Corporate America Blurs the Line Between What We Buy, Who We Are and Those We Help, explains the significance: “The things you talk about on Facebook, your use of social media, is the qualitative information researchers have a hard time getting because it’s so expensive and time consuming. Companies can readily get quantitative data, but if they want to get into people’s heads, it’s really interesting for them to be able to go onto someone’s Facebook page and see what pictures they’re posting and what products they’re buying.” That’s exactly what Walmart learns about every person participating in these contests.

Walmart gets all this for a fairly small outlay. While $3 million might seem like a lot to you and me, this is a company that last year spent 766 times that amount (yes, $2.3 billion!) in advertising alone. In 2012, it doled out more than $6 million to lobbying firms to influence elected officials on Capitol Hill.

The six heirs to the Walmart fortune are so wealthy that together they have as much wealth as the bottom 42 percent of Americans.

Meanwhile, the average Walmart worker makes just $8.81 an hour, according to a study published by Bloomberg News. In recent years, Walmart has not only failed to increase wages, but also cut back on hours and stripped key benefits, like healthcare. Even those Walmart workers who are still able to secure a full-time schedule, with at least 34 hours a week, bring home just $15,500 a year—and live below the poverty line.

Investigative journalist Tracie McMillan spent several months working at Walmart while reporting her book, The American Way of Eating. She made $8.50 an hour. “Before working at Walmart, I believed in Henry Ford’s idea that a business must have to pay its workers enough to buy its products,” she told me. “But Walmart doesn’t have to pay its workers enough to buy its food. It can rely on government benefits.”

Today, too many of Walmart’s own workers rely on food stamps and food banks to feed their families. If Walmart were serious about fighting hunger, the company would pay its workers a living wage. Until then, the company is just trying to distract us with hunger games.