Study: Food banks that partner with corporations may be perpetuating food insecurity

Civil society organizations that partner with large corporations in efforts to reduce hunger in Canada are at risk of perpetuating household food insecurity (HFI) in Canada, according to a new critical case study led by York University.

The study, “Take the money and run: how food banks became complicit with Walmart Canada’s hunger producing employment practices,” looks at how Food Banks Canada’s partnership with Walmart  Canada’s “Fight Hunger. Spark Change” project serves to essentially endorse Walmart Canada’s employment practices that are characterized as contributing to HFI. The study analyzes why Walmart Canada’s corporate branding as an ally in reducing HFI is problematic.

Published on July 26 in the journal Critical Public Health, the study was authored by PhD candidate Zsofia Mendly-Zambo and Professor Dennis Raphael of York’s School of Health Policy and Management, and Alan Taman of Birmingham City University’s School of Social Sciences.

A photo of a grocery cart in the food aisles of a grocery store
The study “Take the money and run: how food banks became complicit with Walmart Canada’s hunger producing employment practices” looks at the role Food Banks Canada plays in Walmart Canada’s employment practices that are characterized as contributing to household food insecurity

Historically, critics have highlighted Walmart Canada as a driving factor in HFI through its lower wages, fewer benefits and opposition to unionization; however, the company has successfully branded itself as an ally in reducing HFI by partnering with Food Banks Canada. In this case study, the authors evaluate the partnership and examine the contradictions between Walmart’s employment practices and Food Banks Canada’s goal to reduce hunger.

The authors found that by entering into a partnership with Walmart Canada, Food Banks Canada has “become complicit in maintaining the structures and the processes that create and perpetuate the HFI that threatens Canadians’ health.”

“Rather than entering into partnerships with corporations with problematic employment practices, Food Banks Canada and its affiliated food banks should highlight how unjust and unfair employment creates HFI and call for major reform of the employment market as a means of reducing HFI in Canada,” says Raphael. “They should also resist the role that corporate lobbying plays in maintaining low wages and poverty-inducing social assistance levels. Embracing corporations and polishing their images through partnerships is not a solution to HFI in Canada.”

Food Banks Canada has partnered with Walmart Canada’s “Fight Hunger. Spark Change” campaign since 2016. In 2020, Walmart Canada announced its intention to raise funds to provide 15 million meals (at a cost of $0.33 per meal), and since 2012 has donated more than 16 million pounds of food to food banks. However, the study indicates that food banks and food diversion do not address the fundamental drivers of HFI, and instead obscure the role Walmart Canada and other corporations play in creating food insecurity.

”Corporate social responsibility (CSR) should be a way for companies to broaden their perspectives and act for the common good, not just a select group of stakeholders,” says Taman, who contributed the analysis of corporate social responsibility. “Unfortunately, it seems to be increasingly the case that CSR is used as an extension of image creation and reputation enhancement irrespective of that company’s actions to groups like employees or the wider communities they stand in. This is essentially unethical and likely to do harm, which this paper shows very clearly.”

The study determines that these types of partnerships perpetuate HFI and threaten the health of Canadians.