Food Nation

Walmart Wants to Be Friends on Facebook

Although Texas has weathered the economic downturn better than most states, that's small consolation to those residents still unable to feed their families. According to research published by the Food Research and Action Center earlier this year, Texas has the 13th-highest rate of food hardship in the United States (with "food hardship" defined as not having enough money to feed one's family at any time in the past 12 months). Texas has a 20.9 percent rate of food hardship - tied with West Virginia. With all due respect to the Mountain State, this is probably not how Texas sees itself.

What about the Bayou City? Out of the 100 biggest metropolitan areas in the US, Houston has the 27th-highest rate of food hardship at 19.8 percent. (As for other Texas metro areas, San Antonio is 24th with a 19.9 percent rate, Dallas is 43rd with an 18.6 percent rate, and Austin is 70th with a 16.3 percent rate. For some reason, neither El Paso nor McAllen were included on the list, although they certainly rank among the 100 biggest metropolitan areas.) And Houston would be even worse off but for the herculean efforts of the Houston Food Bank, which distributed 65 million pounds of food to 865,000 people last year.

But things are about to get better. Through its charitable foundation, Walmart recently donated $600,000 to the Houston Food Bank, and announced a Facebook campaign, Fighting Hunger Together, to determine which cities' food banks will receive another $1.5 million. It's a simple popularity contest: the largest 100 cities in America are the contenders, and Walmart will make a $1 million donation to the area with the most "likes" as of December 31, 2010. The next five most "liked" areas will receive $100,000 each.

As of the time of this writing, Houston sits in ninth place, with 3,459 "likes." To finish in the money, it will need to overtake Buffalo, Dallas, and Tulsa. Yes, Dallas. Come on, Houston!

Donating money to fight hunger is clearly a good thing, but this is a slightly weird contest. For one thing, the odds seem completely rigged in favor of the big cities. Megalopolises like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago have an enormous advantage over burgs like Grand Rapids, Wichita, and Tulsa. Yet the latter three cities are currently among the top ten in likes (with Grand Rapids a solid #2), while the three biggest cities in America come in at 33, 48, and 27, respectively. How is it possible that Grand Rapids has 23,714 likes, but Los Angeles can only muster 445? And poor Reading, PA - bringing up the caboose with only 64 likes. These days, no one has a friend in Pennsylvania.

And what are you saying by liking a city? Because here's the thing: every city has families that go hungry. And this contest is a zero-sum game - if your city wins, another city loses. Wouldn't it be more appropriate for Walmart to donate the money on the basis of neediness? Currently Buffalo, ranked 85th in terms of food hardship, is sixth, with 4,275 likes; Memphis, the city with the highest rate of food hardship, is 46th, with 460 likes.

Then again, one shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. The simple truth is that over the next five years, Walmart will donate more than $2 billion to the fight against hunger. Whatever you might think about Walmart, it didn't have to donate anything. And by attempting (however clumsily) to harness the power of social networking, it is raising awareness about food banks and the ongoing problem of hunger in America. So get on the Internets and click that "like" button already.

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Matthew Dresden
Contact: Matthew Dresden