Wal-Mart focuses on food for the holidays

SAN FRANCISCO Fri Dec 18, 2009 8:15am EST

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc began its U.S. holiday giving campaign with a focus on food as record numbers of Americans turn to the government and charity to help them eat.

Reuters spoke with Margaret McKenna, president of the Walmart Foundation, to find out why food was the focus.

An edited transcript follows:

Q: How did you decide that food aid was an area you wanted to target this holiday season?

A: We're the largest grocer in the country, so I think we feel a real responsibility to respond to hunger.

Food banks have enormous demand, and there's over a 100 percent increase in the number of people going to a food bank for the first time in their lives. These are our neighbors, our friends, the people we go to church with. This has, we hope, become something that people are really aware of. This is not like this is the other, people we don't know. These are people we do know. And it's going to continue.

We knew that this holiday was going to be particularly difficult for people, and we really wanted to do something and make a statement that we really feel that we have a responsibility.

Q: What was the thinking in providing a $2.2 million grant to Meals on Wheels for meals provided to senior citizens?

A: It really feels like a forgotten group and most of these folks are poor, isolated and hungry. Meals on Wheels is the organization that is the link for these folks who otherwise would just go hungry.

Seniors have been a big part of the Walmart community for a long time, both in terms of shoppers and in terms of associates, the employees. Just as hunger fits in with who we are because we're the largest grocer, seniors have been loyal patrons, loyal shoppers. A lot of those people who greet you when you go in the door are seniors.

Q: You said you thought it would be a tough holiday season. Why?

A: One of the things that hit home for me more than anything was ... (Wal-Mart CEO) Mike Duke telling the story about food stamps, now called SNAP. Shoppers get the card, and it's eligible for spending at midnight. And Walmart has now found that at 11 o'clock the night before, people come to the stores and wait until midnight to go through the shopping line. There's been a significant increase in seeing that.

It really stops you for a minute. These people have no food. This is not supplemental food, this is people with empty kitchens and empty refrigerators who are lining up so they can have food.

(Reporting by Nicole Maestri. Editing by Robert MacMillan)

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