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Walmart's Plan To Fight Hunger In The U.S.

The retail giant is going to be giving away $2 billion in cash and food in an attempt to get more food to the 50 million Americans who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from.

In the past half decade, Walmart has quickly established itself as a major player in the fight to eliminate food deserts, or places that lack nearby access to healthy food (with controversial results). But the largest company on the planet isn’t stopping there. The Walmart Foundation unveiled this week its Fall campaign for "Fighting Hunger Together," an ambitious $2 billion commitment to help end hunger in the U.S.

The Fighting Hunger Together project, a commitment from both Walmart and the Walmart Foundation, launched in 2010. Since then, the project has spawned a number of initiatives, including a Facebook campaign that allowed people to vote on which communities with high unemployment rates (there were 200 in the running) should get grants to fight hunger. The winner, Youngstown-Warren, Ohio, received $1 million, while 20 runners-up received $50,000 each.

This month, Walmart is launching the Golden Spark campaign (a riff on Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket), where entrants can register online or by mail. 40 randomly selected winners will each choose a community that gets $50,000 in funding to start (or improve, if one already exists) a backpack program that provides nutritious meals to kids on the weekends, when they can’t access low-cost school lunches.

Walmart employees can also get involved—the more hours employees from a given store spend volunteering at food banks, the more likely they are to win their own Golden Spark (there are 10 for employees in total). Walmart is also ramping up meal donations (the goal is to donate 1.1 billion pounds of food from Walmart stores, distribution centers, and Sam’s Club locations by 2015) with help from five suppliers: ConAgra, Kraft, Unilever, General Mills, and Kellogg’s.

On a larger scale, Walmart is working to bring together its hunger and nutrition initiatives—teams that are often kept separate in other organizations. "These are communities that work in parallel universes," says Sylvia Matthews Burwell, president of the Walmart Foundation.

With high unemployment and rising food costs from this summer’s drought, progress on ending—or even slightly quelling—hunger in the U.S. seems daunting. According to a recent report from the USDA, there were 50 million people in the country last year who didn’t know at some point where their next meal would come from. But, says Burwell, "The overall numbers would have been greater if not for efforts not just from us, but from suppliers, organizations like Feeding America, and food banks."