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Hunger in America: A Q&A With Julie Gehrki, Walmart Foundation

October 12, 2012

In 2010, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation launched a five-year, $2 billion effort to help end hunger in America. In partnership with Feeding America and five of the country’s largest food companies -- ConAgra Foods, General Mills, Kellogg Company, Kraft Foods, and Unilever -- Walmart has since launched a variety of initiatives to encourage its customers to join the fight against hunger. Earlier this fall, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Walmart Foundation senior director Julie Gehrki about the company's Fighting Hunger Together campaign and what the foundation is doing to address hunger in America.

Julie_gehrki_headshotPhilanthropy News Digest: What effect has the sluggish economic recovery and the drought in the Midwest had on hunger and food insecurity in the United States?

Julie Gehrki: In early September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released the results of its most recent survey, which found that more than fifty million Americans are suffering from food insecurity. And a recent survey conducted by Feeding America found that 65 percent of its foodbank directors are very worried about food supply in the coming months. While we're hopeful the economy will continue to improve, we want to make sure that those who may not be benefiting from the improvement are taken care of. Feeding America foodbanks are on the frontlines of need in our communities, and Walmart wants to make sure they have the food they need to help those who need it -- particularly if food prices rise, as some are predicting, and as we head into the holiday season.

PND: What are some of the best ways for individuals to fight hunger in their communities?

JG: One of the things we're doing is called the Golden Spark campaign. Through Sunday, October 14, people can go to Walmart.com/hunger or our Facebook page and vote for a community to win $50,000 to start or expand a backpack program -- that's a program that provides meals to food-insecure children over the weekend, when they don't have access to free- or reduced-price school meals. A lot of people understand that kids get fed through school, lunches and sometimes breakfasts, during the week. But the backpack program forces people to think about what a kid does on the weekend. Studies have found that teachers have noticed that many kids are less attentive on Monday mornings, and that's because many of them have not eaten enough over the weekend. Backpack programs are largely run by volunteers. Individuals pack backpacks with food that's easy for kids to open and prepare on their own over the weekend. Walmart believes this is a local issue, something that communities and individuals in those communities have to rally around, because it's their neighbors who are feeling the pain.

PND: As a parent of two small children who have some eating issues, I know that a lot of food goes uneaten. What, if anything, are you doing to control for or take advantage of that?

JG: A lot of people are thinking about that. We're working hard with a number of nonprofits to make sure the food that's provided through the program is both healthy and appealing to kids. For example, some kids will not eat an apple unless it's in slices. We also address things like the school breakfast program by providing food in classrooms. Everyone eats together and we do everything we can to make sure there's no stigma attached to receiving food from a foodbank.

PND: Is Walmart using social media to engage its customers in the effort?

JG: The Golden Spark campaign relies on Facebook. Again, to vote for a community, visit our Facebook page or Walmart.com/hunger. You can also share the page with your friends on Facebook. The campaign is about broadening the number of people who are involved in hunger-alleviation efforts, and social media is a great way to do that. Our Facebook fans also can visit the "Live Better" section of our page to learn about our ongoing work fighting hunger across the United States and to view videos that highlight local stories of Americans making a difference in their communities.

PND: How many people do you hope to reach?

JG: This year, between the meals we donate, those donated by our suppliers, and those donated by Walmart customers, it'll be fifty-three million meals -- and that doesn't include the $2.5 million Walmart will give in cash to support hunger-alleviation efforts. When we started in 2007, we donated about nine million meals.

As you know, this is part of our $2 billion commitment to combat hunger in the United States. One of the things we know we can do as the nation's largest grocer is raise awareness of the issue. And so we're supporting our efforts through a multi-channel marketing campaign that kicked off in September, which was Hunger Action Month. It's really about using the combined resources of nonprofits, corporations, foundations, and individuals to say that this is a real issue, this is an important issue, and that together we can make a difference.

-- Matt Sinclair

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