In the middle of the battles over food stamp funding, the Ohio Grocers Association sent Congress a joint letter with the state’s Association of Food Banks. They wrote, "Cutting SNAP doesn't just hurt the poor, it hurts business too."
“You tend to think that larger retail chains, with their corporate culture and perspective, might be less inclined to support a large, federal program, but certainly on the other side, these programs benefit them tremendously,” says Julie Paradis, former administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service at the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the food stamp program.
Toward the end of the SNAP funding debates in January, I met with Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat from Ohio (and the daughter of a grocer) who was working to persuade her Republican colleagues to minimize the food stamp cuts. “Walmart is a helpful force, as well as many other retail stores. All the big retailers, the grocers, make a great deal of money” from SNAP, she said.
Walmart confirms it takes in about 18 percent of U.S. food stamp dollars, a share that would have amounted to more than $13 billion last year. Walmart spokesman David Tovar told me the company did not take a position on the recent food stamp funding cuts but that it likes to be “part of the dialogue” to help elected officials consider the issue of food stamp funding. “We oftentimes will provide useful information about our business, some of the trends we’re seeing, how it’s impacting customers,” Tovar says.
But public lobbying records suggest Walmart is playing a more active role in those discussions. Disclosure forms for the end of 2013, when debate over SNAP funding was in full swing, show that Walmart paid in-house lobbyists $1.9 million. The report itemizes lobbying activity on a broad range of issues, among them SNAP, the farm bill legislation that determines SNAP funding levels, and “discussions regarding Federal Nutrition programs from the consumer and retail perspective.”
Further down the lobbying form, Walmart also disclosed discussing the minimum wage. (Walmart says that it has not taken a stand on the proposed raise to the federal minimum wage to $10.10 but that it’s looking into the effect it would have on its business.)
If you go to Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, in a drab brick building that looks more like a public school than a corporate HQ, you will probably hear at least one person quote a certain Walmart aphorism: “EDLC equals EDLP.” Translation: “Every Day Low Costs” equal “Every Day Low Prices.” That’s part of why discount retailers like Walmart take in so many food stamp dollars in the first place, as low-income customers look to get the most bang for their food stamp bucks.
You can think about that equation two different ways. Walmart sees its low prices as a chief force in fighting hunger, says Denniston of the Walmart Foundation. “We want to take the best of what Walmart as a business has to offer and build on that,” she says, “and so one of the greatest assets that we provide to local communities is being a grocer that can bring safe, affordable, nutritious products.”
But one of the Every Day Low Costs that Walmart needs to keep in check is the price of labor. In the EDLC = EDLP equation, low wages help make low prices possible—and if that means some companies don’t pay their workers enough to make ends meet, it’s the government that makes up the difference.
This is the third in a three-part series. Read the entire series here.