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

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 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.

5 Responses to “Did Walmart Buy Growing Power’s Silence for a Million Dollars?”

  1. Bunny Colvin says:

    It seems to me that many people criticizing this donation are admirers of Will and GP, maybe fans on Facebook and follow Twitter and have read about him. From people who have worked there, the management there is appalling. Take this from a former intern; I don’t even think I can call myself an intern, more of a migrant worker when I was at GP. Yes, he has taken urban farming to a larger scale than has ever been done, but the organization is held together by spit and glue and commercially it is failing; Walmart’s donation will be burnt up before anyone knows it. I’m only going to work myself up going on about what happens in GP, but many others share these concerns.
    This link is to intern evaluations from former employees and anyone asking around will confirm this

    http://moriareynolds.com/growing-power

  2. Janet Camp says:

    I visit GP frequently and am somewhat acquainted with Will Allen. I have had only positive feelings about what they are doing. Reading the links provided by Bunny leaves me confused and uneasy. Is there any oversight going on with GP?

    I can’t argue with Michelle’s well-argued position, and it saddens me that GP has taken this step. I think that if they were well-managed, they could carry on without corporate money. It reminds me of how corporations slowly bought up small food companies and created “Big Organic”.

    I’m sticking with my own garden (city lot), backyard hens and food preservation. I grow winter greens in buckets in the basement with a grow lite and give my hens a rest by NOT leaving a light on in the winter. I use the last of the eggs laid in the fall sparingly and make do until they start again in the early spring. Unless I know a farmer personally, I am wary. Some of the produce a friend bought at a Farmer’s Market rotted within two days–must have been from one or two or more weeks ago market. GP told me they “dispose” of their hens after two years or less–not my idea of humane treatment. GP’s tiny (plastic clamshell) packages of sprouts and greens sell for $3.99 at the local coop–pretty pricy even though I have to say they pack quite a lot of greens into the container.

    Anyway, I find this news disturbing. One more noble effort down the drain of corporate contamination.

    • Bunny Colvin says:

      Janet, to what extent would you say you’re “acquainted?” I suggest the next time you visit hang around the staff that you know maybe even drop by the intern house with a few words and engage them in conversation. (Bring them some home-made food, they’ll love you and open up real quick) My hope is I hope they’ll say everything about Moria’s account and the former intern evaluation is no longer true but I won’t hold my breath.

      I don’t mean to completely bash Will’s efforts but the place needs drastic change. what I experienced makes me even more motivated to continue my work in urban farming and food justice but unless management is restructured and a sense of ownership is bestowed on volunteers and paid staff, GP will become everything that is wrong with the food system.

      “No question now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

  3. ken hargesheimer says:

    Who ever provides the money, control everything. I have found that the management of such organizations have little interest in what is actually going on in the garden and on the farm.

  4. mike d. says:

    Having been a veteran of the urban gardening movement of the late 60′s and early 70′s the move by walmart is no surprise. The best thing about growing power is the access to growing information. No farm of a few acres be commercially viable (except for pot), so get the info and grow in your backyard for your family. Currently, the corporations are gaining control of the distribution, then drive down the prices paid to the farmers, buy up the small growers and force out those who resist. History is full of examples. Last fall in Philadelphia, mayor nutter gave 30 year leases of active and vacant gardens (lots) to a restaurant chain without notice to the community or the current gardeners. The food grown will be sold in restaurants that the community members can’t afford the dine (40%poverty rate). Don’t believe the hype, help yourself!

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