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Big enough to feed a billion, Wal-Mart responds to hunger in America

NEW YORK — Wal-Mart Stores plans to significantly ramp up donations to the nation's food banks to total $2 billion over the next five years, the retail giant said Wednesday.

The company is more than doubling its annual rate of giving as the number of Americans receiving food stamps has risen to one in eight and food banks are straining to meet demand.

Wal-Mart's plan comes in two parts: At least $250 million in grants over five years will go to efforts such as buying refrigerated trucks, which help fruits, vegetables and meat last longer to make it from store to charity, and programs to feed children during the summer when they're not in school and receiving government meals.

But the bulk of the donations will consist of more than 1.1 billion pounds of food that doesn't sell or can't be sold because it's close to expiration dates, for example. About half will be fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat — items that food banks say they're seeing more demand for.

Wal-Mart estimates the food will provide 1 billion meals. Store employees will even offer assistance to food banks to help run their operations more efficiently.

The move extends Wal-Mart's sharp increases in donations in recent years. In 2009, the company spent $21 million on hunger relief and donated 116.1 million pounds of food, up from $12 million in cash and 42.7 million pounds of food in 2008.

The donations may also represent Wal-Mart playing a bit of catchup with other grocers. The nation's second-largest supermarket chain, the Kroger Co., donated 50 million pounds of food in 2009.

Certainly, Wal-Mart's donations are small compared with the rising need. About 39.7 million people received food stamps in February, an increase of 22 percent from the same month last year.

"As we laid out the case for need over the last couple of years, I think it became clear that this was something that Wal-Mart, as the largest grocer in the country, needed and wanted to do," Wal-Mart Foundation president Margaret McKenna said.

Wal-Mart also plans to use its logistics expertise to help food banks operate on a larger scale and run more efficiently. Company experts will help food banks make tweaks such as installing heavier shelving to hold more food or set up their locations more like stores so they are easier to navigate, McKenna said.

Although there are signs of recovery as companies make more profits and the stock market rebounds, job creation is weak. That means needs will remain high, said Vicki Escarra, chief executive of Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger relief charity. "I think people are recognizing as recovery takes place, middle-income jobs are becoming more and more scarce, and so I think this is certainly a crisis in America," she said.

Big enough to feed a billion, Wal-Mart responds to hunger in America 05/12/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 8:59pm]

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