By ELIZABETH OLSON Published: March 20, 2011
CONAGRA FOODS, whose social cause is ending child hunger, is taking a new approach to raise the issue’s visibility. The company is starting its largest campaign ever, including a television special, to spur more grass-roots involvement to make sure no child goes hungry.
The Omaha-based ConAgra financed a 30-minute program, hosted by Al Roker of the “Today” show on NBC, to tell the stories of American families who, each day, face the question of whether they will have enough to eat. One 8-year-old boy says, “I eat less so my sisters can have another meal.”
“Child hunger is not a problem, it’s a crisis,” Mr. Roker said in an interview, referring to the 17.2 million children the Agriculture Department estimates are at risk of lacking food. In the special, Mr. Roker, along with an NBC correspondent, Natalie Morales, highlights the effects of hunger on children’s ability to learn and complete their education.
To amplify its campaign, called “Child Hunger Ends Here,” ConAgra also is incorporating social media, including bloggers, digital placement and paid advertising to spread information about the increasing prevalence of child hunger and provide consumers with practical suggestions on how to help their communities.
ConAgra is partnering with Feeding America, a group that supplies 200 food banks. The company has contributed 250 million pounds of food to Feeding America, and donates an average of one million meals a month. ConAgra is donating one meal — up to 2.5 million meals — for each eight-digit package code, on specially marked ConAgra brands, that is entered on the campaign Web site, childhungerendshere.com, through August.
The participating brands include Banquet, Chef Boyardee, Healthy Choice, Fresh Mixers, Kid Cuisine, Marie Callender’s and Peter Pan.
“The designation on packages is to alert consumers to the issue,” said André Hawaux, president of consumer foods, a division of ConAgra. The company declined to disclose the overall cost of the campaign, which runs from March through the end of May, but said it would spend 40 percent more than last year’s campaign.
Mr. Hawaux said that the effort was “significantly different this year. We dipped our toe in the water last year, and the response was so supportive, we are now increasing opportunities for people to get involved.” Part of ending child hunger, he said, is overcoming the “stigma that has been attached to the issue over a long time,” which is why the company chose a longer special over shorter commercials.
The 30-minute show, Mr. Roker said, “allows the situation to sink it. The problem doesn’t just zip by in the evening news.”
Vicki Escarra, chief executive of Feeding America, said the number of hungry children was growing because of the weak economy.
“There were about nine million children a year ago, and it has grown to at least 14 million, and an increasing number are from middle-class families,” she said.
While customers will buy products with a portion of the purchase price designated for a cause, Mr. Hawaux said, “they don’t expect to pay more for an item, and they won’t accept shoddy products.”
Even so, corporate-cause marketing, linking a company to a social cause, has been questioned lately. According to a study issued last November, many consumers say that brands support social causes only for publicity and marketing purposes, not because they truly care about the issue.
Brands like Pepsi, Nike and Tide have risen above that bar, the study found. Consumers named these companies, as well as Newman’s Own and Coca-Cola, as corporations that place as much importance on supporting a social cause as they place on profit.
Winning over consumers requires “360-degree authenticity, longstanding involvement and adding purpose to a brand,” said Carol Cone, the managing director for brand and corporate citizenship at Edelman, a public relations agency, which undertook the study.
“It is not about slapping a ribbon on a product any more,” said Ms. Cone, who worked on previous ConAgra child hunger initiatives.
ConAgra’s involvement in ending child hunger dates back almost two decades. The company and its foundation have given $35 million since 1993, including a recent $10 million pledge from the foundation.
“We’re trying to balance between social good and the company,” Mr. Hawaux said. “There is an expectation now that companies do good. But can you overdo it? We are committed, but we are a for-profit enterprise and have business goals we need to meet.”
The child hunger campaign, which was created in-house, is encouraging contributions to Feeding America through a mobile campaign. Texting “FEEDKIDS” to 50555 sends a $10 donation directly to the organization. Each $10 donation helps provide 70 meals to children.
The child hunger television special, which premiered on Saturday on NBC stations in 11 markets, including Chicago, Dallas, Miami and New York, will also be seen in about 200 more cities. Throughout the campaign, consumers can use Twitter, #ChildHungerEndsHere, to comment, ask questions or share stories or photographs.
Also, some 20 bloggers, mostly mothers recruited by ConAgra in various communities nationwide, will use Twitter and other social media like Facebook to share local stories and update their activities. And the company is adding a service day to the campaign. Its 25,000 employees can select a day in April to volunteer to work against child hunger — which, ConAgra says, “is as near as next door, or down the street.”