“Cost-Effective, Scalable Solutions.” Behind a New Push to Reduce Food Waste

Huguette Roe/shutterstock

Huguette Roe/shutterstock

Food waste has been receiving more press lately, and the statistics speak for themselves: Each year, Americans spend more than $160 billion a year on food that’s never eaten. Besides the moral and economic issues of throwing away food while one in seven Americans goes hungry, food waste is an environmental fiasco. Rotting in landfills, food waste contributes to global warming by producing methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide.

In recent years, the Rockefeller Foundation has been one of the few major funders taking on food waste, as we’ve reported. Now, though, more foundations and nonprofits are getting involved in the issue. Last week, the food waste think-tank ReFED announced it was partnering with the Walmart Foundation and the social change organization +Acumen on the ReFED Nonprofit Food Recovery Accelerator to double food donations for Americans who would otherwise go hungry.

Confronting Monumental Waste

The goal of the accelerator—besides “accelerating” the growth of nonprofits working on food waste—is to ramp up food donations while reducing the 52 million tons of food that ends up in landfills each year, with another 10 billion pounds lost or unharvested. One of the largest think-tanks tackling this crisis, ReFED also draws together businesses, foundations, nonprofits and government leaders to work on the problem of food waste.

“One of the great failures of our food system is that up to 40 percent of food is wasted from farm to fork, while 40 million Americans are food-insecure,” said Chris Cochran, executive director of ReFED and former senior manager of corporate sustainability at Walmart from 2013 to 2017, in a press statement. “There are cost-effective, scalable solutions available today to more than double meals recovered and delivered to our food-insecure neighbors.”

The three-month accelerator, designed to increase the growth of select nonprofits working on food waste—is funded by the Walmart Foundation, created by the Bentonville, Arkansas, retail chain Walmart Inc. The program will start in September 2019.

According to ReFED, 10 nonprofit organizations will be chosen to participate in the accelerator, each receiving $25,000 and a stipend to cover travel expenses, plus an additional $100,000 for selected winners. Among other things, nonprofit participants will take part in a virtual classroom with in-person ReFED Learning Labs focusing on earned revenue models, tech solutions and human-centered design. ReFED will also connect participants to a network of industry experts, potential “strategic partners” and sources of capital.

The accelerator’s advisory committee and expert network includes representatives from agribusiness companies, government, banks, tech and nonprofits, including Aramak, Blue Apron, CalRecycle, Chick Fil-A, Cisco, ClimateWorks Foundation, DoorDash, EPA, Feeding America, General Mills Foundation, the Wonderful company, Wells Fargo and the USDA.

Familiar Criticisms

The Walmart Foundation is not new to food issues. It’s long made donations to reduce hunger and food insecurity, as we’ve reported. But Joanne Lo, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of worker-based organizations representing 370,000 food workers across the United States, was critical of the Walmart Foundation’s involvement in this latest initiative.

“The Food Chain Workers Alliance, of course, supports efforts to reduce food waste and address food insecurity and hunger,” Lo told Inside Philanthropy. “However, this new initiative does nothing to address the root cause of food insecurity and hunger, and that is poverty. Instead, it’s another way for Walmart to green-wash its image.”

“The entire board of directors of the Walmart Foundation are executives from Walmart: There really is no distinction between the two organizations,” she continued. “It’s very ironic that the Walmart Foundation is funding a program to address food insecurity and hunger when Walmart, the corporation, pays such low wages and offers mostly part-time jobs, leading it to be the largest employer of workers using SNAP and other public benefits. 

“On average, a single Walmart Supercenter costs us, the taxpayers, between $904,452 and $1.75 million per year in public assistance funds for its employees because Walmart isn’t providing the jobs that would allow its workers to provide enough food for themselves and their families.”

Walmart Foundation donations have drawn fire from community, sustainable agriculture and labor organizations in the past, with some charging that the foundation acts as a lobbying arm of the retail giant.

In 2015, more than a dozen community groups, including San Francisco Jobs With Justice and New York Communities for Change, filed a 22-page complaint against Walmart Foundation with the Internal Revenue Service, alleging that the foundation had violated its tax-exempt status by using its cash to help the retailer set up shop in urban areas.

The complaint also noted that the Walmart Foundation at the time was run entirely by Walmart executives, with no independent directors.

At the time, Walmart Foundation issued a statement denying the allegations.

The foundations provided funding for “important causes in communities across the U.S. and around the world, not just to particular areas or cities, and it’s unfortunate to see criticism of the foundation’s charitable giving,” spokesman Kevin Gardner said in an email.

Reached by phone, the IRS media office declined to comment on the status of the complaint, citing federal tax privacy laws.