But hunger-relief organizations don’t feel exploited. "The best way the fast-food industry can help us is through cause-related marketing, joining forces with us to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of hunger in America," says Ross Fraser, media relations manager for Feeding America (formerly America's Second Harvest), the largest domestic hunger-relief charity in the U.S.
The publicity can work both ways, too. Share Our Strength, for instance, makes promotional materials available to chains and lists on its Web site restaurants that participate in the Great American Dine Out. Some restaurants also choose to participate in the event by selling coupons that can be redeemed at a later date, creating bounce-back visits.
"In addition to contributing to end child hunger, they can drive traffic, not just PR," Shore says.
Yum identified awareness raising, along with volunteer engagement and fundraising, among the three prongs of its World Hunger Relief campaign. Its initiatives include a Web portal and partnerships with high-profile spokespeople like singer Christina Aguilera and former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo. It's harnessing the power of social networking with campaigns like Pizza Hut's Re-Tweet 4 World Hunger Relief, an effort that invited the chain's Twitter followers to spread the word about the problem of hunger by sharing a link to the Pizza Hut World Hunger donation Web site. For each of the first 25,000 tweets, Pizza Hut donated four meals to the hungry. Yum restaurants also have materials promoting World Hunger Relief at the points of sale.
"Restaurants have the ability to reach so many people through their customers," the NRA’s Prince says. "They have a platform because they have people coming in and out of their restaurants every day. They can use their ability to serve up food and to serve up awareness at the same time."
Shore says another reason why hunger may be such a popular cause among restaurants is because it's a problem with an identifiable solution.
"Ending hunger is not a mystery like some of the illnesses and diseases we see in our society," she says. "It's a problem of access."
Yum’s Sherman agrees. "Hunger is an issue that's solvable. There's enough food in the world; it's just not in the right places."
Unlike causes such as finding a cure for cancer, where business benefactors can do little more than raise funds and awareness, hunger relief offers a more direct connection between supporters and their impact. This past September, KFC closed some of its restaurants during the lunch rush so employees could help serve the company's food to residents from local shelters. The event was meant to raise awareness about the problem of hunger, but it also gave employees the chance to see how their efforts can make a difference, says Laurie Schalow, KFC's senior director of marketing and its World Hunger Relief project manager.
"Without asking our employees for money, we wanted them to feel a part of our World Hunger Relief effort," Schalow says. "We felt it was more important to have another way for them to get involved by volunteering. It's one thing to write a check, but to physically get involved with a charity really brings home the importance."
Restaurants also have readily available an important resource needed in the fight against hunger: food. According to LeanPath, a food-waste tracking company, 4–10 percent of the food purchased by commercial foodservice operations ends up wasted.
To help close the gap between waste and want, the NRA announced this fall a partnership with Food Donation Connection (FDC), a company that helps foodservice companies donate surplus food to food banks and soup kitchens across the country. Last year alone, FDC helped 6,700 restaurants donate more than 21 million pounds of prepared—though not yet served—food to more than 3,000 hunger-relief agencies. Quick-service brands, including Yum Brands and Chipotle Mexican Grill, are already using the service.
Restaurants that donate food reap the benefits of tax savings, which can range from $1,000 to $3,000 annually for a single quick serve, depending on the size of the store, amount of surplus food, value and cost of the food, and tax rate, says Jim Larson, FDC's program development director. FDC is a for-profit company, which makes its money by taking 15 percent of the incremental tax savings the restaurants receive.
While many businesses support hunger relief by soliciting donations from customers, the recent tough economic times have made asking for money a delicate issue. Some restaurants have chosen to hold food drives in lieu of or in addition to asking for cash contributions. Mike Manzo, chief operating officer of Jersey Mike's Subs, says some of the sandwich chain's franchisees have chosen to take this approach.
"There are customers out there that love to give a material object versus the dollar," Manzo says.
Although this year Jersey Mike's began its first national initiative to support hunger relief, Manzo says the company has also given to Boys & Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts of America, children's hospitals, and other organizations. When franchisees come into the system, they can partner with a local cause of their choice.
"It doesn't have to be either or," says Share Our Strength's Shore. "It wouldn't make sense, nor would it be practical to say 'do this and not that.' We can work together to figure out a way so that you can still be part of another cause that you care so deeply about and support hunger relief."