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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc is directing much of its U.S. holiday giving this month to providing food as a record number of Americans resort to food stamps and donations to feed their families.
The world's largest retailer has increased its U.S. holiday donation by 28 percent this year, with part of the $32 million earmarked for hunger relief.
"We're the largest grocer in the country, so I think we feel a real responsibility to respond to hunger," said Margaret McKenna, president of the Walmart Foundation, in an interview.
"There's been over a 100 percent increase in the number of people going to a food bank for the first time in their life," she said.
Wal-Mart and the Walmart Foundation have teamed up with Feeding America to donate 35 refrigerator trucks filled with food to food banks. It is also giving a $2.2 million grant to the Meals On Wheels Association of America, which provides food to the elderly, homebound or disabled.
The number of Americans on food stamp assistance jumped in July to a record 35.85 million, marking the seventh month in a row of record-setting participation, according to the latest U.S. government data available.
In response, an increasing number of retailers, including Wal-Mart, Costco Wholesale Corp, and BJ's Wholesale Club Inc, are accepting food stamps as payment.
Meanwhile, a study conducted for Meals on Wheels found a rising number those 60 years old or older face the risk of hunger. About 700,000 more seniors faced that risk in 2007 than they did in 2001, the study stated.
"This increase is before the trough of the current economic downturn is realized, and thus ongoing monitoring of food insecurity among seniors in coming years is especially warranted," the report stated.
McKenna said seniors are often a forgotten group.
"But seniors have been a big part of the Wal-Mart community for a long time, both in terms of shoppers and in terms of ... employees," she said.
The grant Wal-Mart is providing to Meals On Wheels will be used to upgrade or replace delivery vehicles, stoves, refrigerators and freezers. The refrigerator trucks being donated to food banks will be used to transport items like produce, deli meat, beef, and chicken.
In its last fiscal year, Wal-Mart gave more than $378 million in cash and in-kind gifts in the United States, up from $296 million the prior year. For its fiscal year ended January 31, Wal-Mart rang up $255.75 billion in U.S. sales, up from $239.53 billion the year before.
Reporting by Nicole Maestri, editing by Leslie Gevirtz