Whole Foods Puts Hunger on the Line

Restaurants should follow suit.

Whole Foods is again running its "Bag Hunger" campaign, urging customers to tack a few extra dollars to their grocery bills so the supermarket chain can purchase tuna fish, peanut butter, soup, and other commodities for neighbors in need. Last year, the drive netted $43,000 in the Seattle metro area. "We purchased roughly 21,000 pounds of food and delivered it in nice pallets," recalls spokesman David Hulbert.

While $43,000 is surely a tiny fraction of Whole Foods' total holiday revenue, it's a significant sum for food banks, which are grappling with supply shortages and increasing demand. According to the USDA, more than one in seven U.S. households last year experienced "food insecurity," defined as a lack of access to enough food for a healthy, active life.

Since Whole Foods' suggested donation levels top out at $10, it's likely that thousands of people contributed to the store's campaign. That's not entirely surprising: It's hard to defend withholding $2 for a can of tuna when ringing up a $100 tab for wine and artisan cheese.

Guilt is a powerful motivator for generosity. Even for Whole Foods customers who routinely ignore the nation's hunger crisis, it's a short leap from "I'm really going to enjoy this food I'm buying" to "Not everyone can afford the food I'm buying." That makes a grocery store an ideal setting in which to broach the ugly topic of hunger. And it occurred to me when I last checked out at Whole Foods that a restaurant is another arena in which patrons should be primed to give. Many restaurants already participate in charitable events in which they pledge a certain portion of the day's profits to hunger relief, or offer specific menu items benefiting food banks. The Cheesecake Factory sends a quarter to Feeding America every time it sells a slice of Hershey chocolate cheesecake. And "Buy a Meal, Give a Meal," an Australian nonprofit now looking to establish a U.S. presence, partners with restaurants to promote food or beverage items by designating them as charitable choices.

Yet I wonder if there's a better way for restaurant-goers to fight hunger than donating a quarter at a time. Specifically, I'd love to see an added line on credit slips for hunger-relief contributions.

Since I'm not an expert on restaurant payment systems, I ran the idea past the folks at NPC, a Kentucky-based "provider of payment processing systems." The question bopped around the office, but the IT crew finally decided it could be easily done, although the money couldn't go directly to a charity. Like a server tip, it would be paid out by the restaurant.

Participation would certainly require a degree of customer confidence, and I imagine servers might worry that customers would lop off their tips to compensate for any money spent on charity. But those are the only problems I can envision.

I love eating out, and don't think anyone should have to live frugally if they can afford to do otherwise. But as we nitpick about whether our duck was overcooked, we should take a moment to remember how few people ever have the chance to fret about such things.

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