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EXCLUSIVE: Inside Publix's Mission to Fight Food Insecurity

CEO Todd Jones details efforts to put more meals on American tables during company's 1st Hunger Summit
Gina Acosta, Progressive Grocer
Publix CEO Todd Jones takes the podium at the company's inaugural Hunger Summit on Feb. 23 at its Lakeland, Fla., headquarters.

The world has seemingly moved on from the COVID-19 pandemic, but many of the challenges the novel coronavirus created do remain, and one of them is actually getting worse: food insecurity. 

Inflation and elevated grocery prices are causing more consumers to skip meals, eat less, and make regular visits to food banks, according to a recent survey from Providers, an app for users of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

To make matters worse, emergency benefits that have helped boost payments to SNAP recipients in 32 states during the pandemic era are set to end on March 1, leaving tens of millions of Americans with even less money amid high grocery prices.

Of course, none of this is new news to Publix Super Markets CEO Todd Jones, who sat down with Progressive Grocer during an extraordinary inaugural Hunger Summit at the company's headquarters in Lakeland, Fla., on Feb. 23. Jones says food insecurity "just seems to continue to grow. More and more people in our country, in our backyard, right here in Lakeland, are having more difficult times putting meals on the table. ... Food insecurity is a really big priority for us."

Jones and other senior Publix executives hosted elected officials and representatives from Feeding America affiliates across the Southeast, as well as the USDA, to discuss how to work together to fight hunger. Several of the leaders from the food banks attending the event said they are seeing 30%-40% increases in demand over the past 12 months, compared to the peak demand they saw during the pandemic, for food from households across the income spectrum.

During the summit, Publix offered up executives in charge of its distribution, produce, food safety, human resources and even social media divisions to give presentations on partnering with food banks.

The grocer also surprised food bank officials in attendance with $4 million in grants.

Jones said fighting food insecurity and giving back to communities is one of the six pillars the company was built on.  

"The first pillar is customer value," Jones said. "I was asked earlier: 'What are you doing to help with inflation?' Well, being passionately focused on customer value means being more efficient. It means taking information that we have, like we're working with our business partners, and sharing how can we complement each other so that we can add more value to the communities that we serve, the customers that we serve."

The second pillar, Jones said, is to be intolerant of waste.

"A third of food is being put in landfills. Just think about the opportunity where we have waste. We probably haven't been as intolerant of waste as we should have. So not only is it the absolute food waste, but it's the things that we can do with our teams, the things that we can do using and leveraging all the assets that we have, the human capital and the physical capitals that we have,  so that we're not tolerating waste."

The third pillar is "to be dedicated to the dignity, the value and employment security of our associates. ... It's what Mr. George [Jenkins] founded the company on. It's their company. They're the owners. It's their opportunity to grow with the company, and we need to continue to be dedicated to that employment security," Jones said.

"The next pillar is to be devoted to the highest standard of stewardship for our stockholders," continued Jones. "We've got to make sure that we're making the right decisions long term for the organization, do what we say we're going to do, represent that brand of integrity, of high quality, of high service, of convenient, located stores, friendly, knowledgeable, respect the customer's time. Every day that we get up, we eat it, we drink it, we sleep it, and then we get up the next day and we do it again, and we do it again, and we do it again."

And then the last pillar is to be responsible citizens in Publix's communities.

"Whether it is working on environmental issues, or helping people who have home insecurities," said Jones. "We're involved with Habitat For Humanity to make sure that we can help where people don't have shelter. And then lastly, of course, food insecurity."

Jones became emotional talking about this last, but most important topic. "I've never not had a meal. I've had to trade off a lot of other things in my life, but there was always a roof over our head, and there was always food always there to eat. Wonderful guiding principle parents that helped me understand the importance of that. And with little means, it was amazing what my parents always did to sacrifice personally to do for others that have even a lot less than what we have. Mr. George came from that and he had very humble beginnings, and he knew the importance of it. So it's just important for us to continue that legacy."

Publix Super Markets Charities (PSMC) has donated over $46.5 million to Feeding America food banks and other affiliates since 2015, according to Jones. In November, Publix announced plans to extend their commitment to help alleviate hunger throughout the communities it serves. Publix and PSMC have pledged a total of $23 million to support hunger alleviation by the end of 2023 — this includes a Publix commitment to provide more than 10 million pounds of produce to stock 20 of the mobile pantries in their first year of operation. 

In September, the White House announced $8 billion in commitments to end hunger in the U.S. by 2030. During the Sept. 28 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health – the first of its kind held since 1969 – President Biden announced a goal to eradicate food insecurity among Americans by 2030 and stem diet-related conditions such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension. 

Speaking in Washington, D.C. in front of an audience of at least 500 people representing business, civic, academic and local government groups, Biden pointed out that one in 10 Americans don’t have enough food to feed their families. “This is something we should be all rallying the whole country to work on together,” he declared, adding, “Meeting our bold goals requires a whole government approach … and a whole-of-society effort.”

On that point, the Biden Administration is engaging grocers and CPGs as central parts of its plan to combat hunger and chronic diet-related illness. In the first pillar of improving food access and affordability, National Grocers Association (NGA) shared that it will expand access to full-service grocery stores and double the number of retailers offering SNAP benefit online, while the FMI - the Food Industry Association, announced that it will mobilize its members to donate 2 billion meals in 2023 to food banks and other anti-hunger groups, among other measures.

More details about the conference and participating business and industry organizations is available on the White House website.   

Employee-owned and -operated Publix has close to 1,300 supermarkets in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. Publix is No. 12 on The PG 100, Progressive Grocer’s 2022 list of the top food and consumables retailers in North America.

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