There is a hunger industrial complex at play in America. Although poverty and unemployment rates have continued to grow in the past decades, the American public has been led to view hunger as a separate issue. In this paper, I examine how corporations have been able to used their philanthropic power to manipulate the public’s understanding of hunger- its causes and solutions. In order to show this, I organized my findings and analysis into three subtopics.
First, I explain how the relationship between corporations and anti-hunger groups has contributed to public misconceptions about hunger. Because anti-hunger groups rely on corporate philanthropy, they are unable to acknowledge the monumental role corporations play in perpetuating food inequality. This restricts anti-hunger groups from making real progress toward relieving hunger in the long-term, Instead, anti-hunger groups are forced to continue to operate around short-term solutions to hunger.
Second, I explain how corporations use cause related advertising to increase their success while simultaneously fueling misconceptions of hunger. Third, I look at how Feeding America-the largest non profit hunger relief group in the U.S- is reliant on corporations. I argue that Feeding America exemplifies how corporate interests have become entrenched in the anti-hunger movement.
In the discussion section of my paper, I tie my arguments together to discuss how the public views of hunger would be altered in the absence of corporate influence. Through my analyses, I work to show how corporate philanthropy undermines not only the public’s understanding of hunger, but also the very success of the anti-hunger movement.
Background and Motivation
The motivation for this paper was to show how corporations in America have used their philanthropic power to manipulate the public’s understanding of hunger. There has been a moderate amount of existing knowledge published related to my topic. However, in order to answer my research question in the most effective way- I had to pull bits and pieces from various sources. My paper takes a slightly different perspective from previously published works on corporate philanthropy.
A large portion of my paper focuses on understanding the relationship between corporations and the public view/portrayal/ knowledge of the true extent of the hunger crisis in America. I argue that corporations have used the power of philanthropy and cause marketing to undermine to prevent any real progression toward hunger relief. Because corporations have harnessed the discourse over food inequality and the hunger crisis in America- the public has been mislead, not only as to the true nature of hunger in America, but also as to what measures are successful at combating hunger.
My findings are in keeping with a large portion of the work that has been published on the cause marketing aspect of corporate philanthropy. I argue that cause marketing has manipulated the public’s understanding of the hunger crisis in order to use the anti-hunger movement to perpetuate their own success. The conclusion I come to agrees with that of previous critiques of cause marketing- that the long term effect of such campaigns in massively detrimental to success of the anti-hunger efforts.
Data and Methodology
I built my analysis off of the works of Andy Fisher, Terence Lim, and Angela Eikenberry. I then gatherer my data by researching Walmart and its corporate philanthropic practices. This led me to find evidence showing how corporations like Walmart fuel public misconceptions about the causes and solutions to hunger in America. This allowed me to use Fisher’s work to analyze how Walmart uses its philanthropy to manipulate public misconception. I then gathered data from Feeding America’s website to support my claims of how corporate influence reaches the public. I aim to provide a comprehensive view of a complex topic in order to prove how corporations have ultimately prevented the success of the anti-hunger movement.
Findings and Analysis
Philanthropic Mechanisms of Control and Manipulation
Corporations have used the monetary power of their philanthropy to manipulate the public’s understanding of the cause of hunger. “The identification of hunger as an issue in its own right, decoupled from broader societal problems and systematic solutions, lends itself to the illusion of success” (Fisher 2017, pp.20). Hunger as a societal problem does not exist outside that of other social problems. However, corporate philanthropy aims to erase the line between hunger and poverty. This can be seen by examining how corporations strategically use their philanthropic control to prevent anti-hunger groups from advocating for higher wages and better living.
In 2013 in Washington DC, the city council proposed legislation that would have made a minimum hourly wage of $12.50 a condition for big-box stores, like Walmart, to enter the city. The legislation was heavily supported by anti-poverty and living wage advocacy groups. However, anti-hunger groups in the city, which collectively had received $3.8 million in donations from Walmart in 2012, did not support the legislation. The legislation was ultimately vetoed by the mayor (DeBonis 2013).
This event shows how anti-hunger groups’ reliance on big corporations prevents them from advocating for policies that fight against poverty and unfair labor wages. This encourages the public to dissociate hunger from poverty. The true cause of hunger remains outside of public discourse and knowledge. Corporations use their philanthropy to execute this kind of power over anti-hunger groups- a power which effectively keeps them from shedding a light on the monumental role corporations play in perpetuating hunger in America.
Because of corporate demands placed on the operations of charitable anti-hunger groups, the public continues to see food as the solution to hunger. “To keep the funds flowing, they craft policies and programs that pander to the interests of their supporters… This becomes especially problematic when their funders’ core business practices are inimical to their missions” (Fisher pp. 102). In order to keep their funding, food relief organizations must prioritize the demands of their corporate donors over that of the the public they serve.
Food relief organizations must meet a set quota of food distributed and people served in order to keep their corporate funding. These measures are broadcasted to the public as indication of how a corporation’s philanthropy is helping to “solve” hunger. In this way, corporations have used their philanthropic control to lead the public to believe that the solution to hunger is simply food.
The Role of Marketing; How Cause-Related Advertising Fuels Misconceptions about Hunger
Misconceptions about the causes and solutions to hunger are perpetuated by the widespread use of consumption philanthropy (aka cause marketing). Consumption philanthropy pairs the support of a charitable cause, like hunger, with the purchase of a company’s product. In her article, “The Hidden Costs of Cause Marketing,” Angela Eikenberry explains how cause marketing is a deterrent to social change:
Meanwhile, because consumption and philanthropy have become one and the same, the distance from which one would critique consumption and the market, and imagine alternatives, is eliminated. Philanthropy becomes depoliticized, stripped of its critical, social change potential. The result is that consumption philanthropy stabilizes, more than changes, the system (the market) that some would argue led to the poverty, disease, and environmental destruction philanthropists hope to eradicate. Consumption philanthropy is thus not about change, but about business as usual (Eikenberry 2009, pp. 54)
Eikenberry’s argument can be applied to understand how cause marketing has allowed corporations to portray themselves as champions in the “fight against hunger” while simultaneously reinforcing misconceptions about the cause and solution to hunger- misconceptions which deter real social progress towards equality and fuel corporate expansion.
An example of this can be seen in Walmart’s cause marketing campaign: “Fight Hunger: Spark Change.” Walmart launches this campaign annually in partnership with Feeding America. Feeding America is a national nonprofit with a network of over 200 foodbanks. Walmart’s “Fight Hunger: Spark Change” campaign promises to donate various amount of money to Feeding America with the purchase of certain products sold in Walmart stores.
Although campaign’s like this allow Walmart to portray itself as an advocate to end hunger, the real reason behind Walmart’s support of food banks is to benefit itself. “The more food banks and food stamps can provide for the needs of impoverished workers, such as those who work at Walmart, the easier it is for the company and other employers to keep their wages low” (Fisher 2017, pp.95). Because Walmart is built on a business model of cheap labor, its success is contingent on its ability to keep its wages low. This model motivates Walmart to use its philanthropy to support organizations like Feeding America.
Feeding America: Anti-Hunger Advocate or Corporate America’s Pawn?
There is no denial that Feeding America has helped many families by providing them with food, however the company’s portrayal of the hunger crisis in America provides fuel for public misconceptions. Feeding America’s website contains a page entitled “Hunger and Poverty Facts.” The first thing seen on this page is a large picture of a little girl with a text box that reads, “For people facing hunger, poverty is just one issue” (Feeding America 2018).
The page continues to detail random statistics about hunger in America. At the bottom of the page, the website boasts that for each dollar donated, ten meals are provided to the hungry. “The power imbalance between giver and recipient, between corporations and nonprofit group, it is so great that nonprofits may be faced with unsavory compromises and collateral damage from their association with corporate philanthropists.
Knowingly or unwittingly, they become pawns in corporations’ grander plans, leading to ethical challenges and unintended negative consequences” (Fisher 2017, pp.89). Feeding America is a prime example of an anti-hunger group that is portraying false causes and solutions to hunger. Feeding America has portrayed poverty and hunger as two separate issues. They have also portrayed food as the solution to hunger in the long term- both in their actions and words.
Although I have argued that cause marketing and corporate philanthropy are tools by which corporations fuel public misconceptions of hunger, there can be an argument made in advocating for their positive role in feeding the hungry. That is, an argument can be made on the basis that the food hunger relief groups provide to the poor is vital, despite the larger social implications at play. Even critics of cause marketing acknowledge the short term benefit of these programs. In a nation plagues with widespread poverty and insecurity, some argue there is no room to question programs that help individuals and families in need.
There can also be an argument formed on the conservative view of businesses. That is, that corporations are not obliged to serve anyone but their consumers- so by engaging in philanthropy, corporations are going above and beyond. Born out of the corporate attitude prior to the 1970s, this standpoint argues that corporations have no real responsibility to society other than to pay taxes and create jobs (Fisher 2017 pp.79). This attitude can be used to defend corporations and argue that they have done nothing but help the less fortunate.
Discussion and Conclusion
Corporate philanthropy has created a dichotomy in the public’s conception of poverty and hunger. This not only undermines the success of the anti-hunger movement, but also works to fuel inequality and class oppression in America. Corporations have successfully painted themselves as patrons to social change while drawing focus away from the monumental role they play in creating and expanding poverty.
Corporations have manipulated the public’s conceptions of hunger to support an emergency food system based in short term solutions. Rather than understanding the socioeconomic reasons for hunger, the public has been mislead to believe that hunger can be easily solved through charity. In the absence of corporate influence, anti-hunger advocacy would coincide with anti-poverty advocacy. If the public understood hunger in the context of inequality, class exploitation, and the growing poverty rate, the anti-hunger movement could begin to work toward long term solutions for equality.
- DeBonis, Mike. “D.C. Council Approves ‘Living Wage’ Bill over Wal-Mart Ultimatum.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 10 July 2013, www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/dc-council-approves-living-wage-bill-over-wal-mart-ultimatum/2013/07/10/724aab6e-e96f-11e2-a301-ea5a8116d211_story.html?utm_term=.a982d6f68663.
- Eikenberry, Angela M. “A Critical Case Study of Cause-Related Marketing.” Administrative Theory & Praxis, vol. 35, no. 2, 2013, pp. 290–305., doi:10.2753/atp1084-1806350206.
- “Feeding America Annual Report” Feeding America, www.feedingamerica.org/about-us/financials/2017-feeding-america-annual-report.pdf
- Fisher, Andrew. “The Politics of Corporate Giving.” BIG HUNGER: the Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. MIT PRESS, 2018.
- “Hunger and Poverty Facts.” Feeding America, www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-and-poverty-facts.html.
- Lim, Terence, Measuring the Value of Corporate Philanthropy: Social Impact, Business Benefits and Investor Returns (February 22, 2010). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1571910 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1571910