Food companies react to growing number of hungry

by Morton Sosland
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While not deviating from the belief that businesses like food manufacturing owe their foremost duty to their own success, it is equally important to recognize the real responsibility they have to helping provide food to hungry people. This obligation to assist people in need of food and to participate in programs meant to do whatever it takes to end poverty-caused hunger takes on an aura of urgency in harsh economic times like the present.

One of the first results of rising unemployment caused by a business downturn is a sharp increase in the number of people who do not have sufficient food. The estimate that 5 million people have lost their jobs on account of the recession translates into a multiple of that huge number who are without adequate food. Could there be anything the food industry faces that is more important than helping relieve this grievous situation?

On the front line in doing something about hunger is the national organization now named Feeding America and known for years as Second Harvest. The original name reflected the organization’s work with food banks and pantries across the country in distributing food obtained from government surplus disposal operations and from donations made mainly by food manufacturers. Food companies viewed this system as an efficient way to dispose consumer products unsuited for retail sale, but of good quality. According to Feeding America, its affiliated organizations provide food to some 25 million Americans, including nearly 10 million children. The food is distributed by more than 200 food banks providing food to 63,000 agencies.

No one is more aware than food companies themselves of the difficulties of maintaining such a vast network in these hard times. Food supplies available from government have been slashed. Appropriations to provide funding have been increased, but hardly at a pace in line with advancing costs. Food companies facing their own need to slash expenses have less to distribute. Even as progressive retail food stores and restaurant chains have joined in relief efforts, the needs have multiplied. As a result, food banks that once focused on obtaining contributions of food now must seek to raise many millions of dollars.

These immense needs are recognized by food industry leaders. They are among the largest contributors to Feeding America and to local food banks. As one of these put it so well, "In light of our mission to nourish people, we are making this donation to help address immediate shortfalls of food for families in need."

Several food companies have incorporated help for the hungry into brand marketing, pledging gifts to Feeding America in response to certain consumer actions that reflect understanding of how brands address nutritional needs. One company, in seeking to revitalize a frozen food brand, includes in its marketing a sizable donation to Feeding America that will equal 1.75 million plates of food. Another national brand company is donating up to 1 million servings of food made with its whole grain ingredient.

The Grain Foods Foundation, which seeks to spur bread consumption, has broadened its innovative Bread Art Project — encouraging consumers to use a bread-slice "canvas" to create a piece of art — to combat hunger. The Foundation has donated $1 to Feeding America for each piece of bread art created, with the hope that this will mean sufficient funding for 1 million servings, based on seven servings for each $1. A leading wholesale baker will provide thousands of loaves to support the campaign.

In commenting on the way that food companies are engaged in brand and product promotion along with helping feed the hungry, one observer ascribed it to food companies believing "altruistic approaches can resonate with consumers in tough times." Sure, they do resonate, but much beyond that, these efforts reflect the reality that hardly anyone is better able to understand and to react to growing numbers of hungry than the people who make the food themselves.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, August 4, 2009, starting on Page 9. Click here to search that archive.

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