Silicon Valley's hunger problems grow during a time of record profits

While local technology companies are helping out, charitable groups say it just isn’t enough. Case in point: Every week, Facebook buys organic produce from local farmers markets and has Facebook employees box the produce up and deliver it to several locations in the region, like Laurel Avenue Church of Christ in East Palo Alto, to distribute. But demand quickly surpasses supply.

“We run out of 200 boxes within about an hour,” said Bruce Nash, the church’s minister. He said he is serving more “professionals” seeking food since the pandemic began, including people who work in information technology, sales, marketing and health care. “The need has grown tremendously over the pandemic,” he said.

Another food distribution site run by the Ecumenical Hunger Program, also in East Palo Alto, has been serving 1,200 households a week since the pandemic began. That’s nearly triple what it was before the pandemic, said LaKesha Roberts, the group’s associate director. She expects it to grow to 1,500 households in the run-up to Christmas as other distribution centers close for the holidays. The group also gets funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, but Roberts said the center needs more help.

“We are getting more of our working-class families, and because they have been so greatly affected by Covid … they are relying on services that they have never had to before,” Roberts said. “I will say this: I definitely believe that everyone can do more.”

And charitable groups know that the companies can afford to give more.

At the same time more Silicon Valley residents are struggling to put food on their tables, the tech companies that neighbor the distribution sites are doing better than ever. Profits at Alphabet, Google’s parent company, which is a 7-mile drive southeast of the middle school, rose to $11.2 billion during the same period, up from $7 billion last year. Even Amazon, which is based in Seattle and Arlington, Virginia, maintains a notable subsidiary known as A9, just 3 miles from the school. Amazon’s quarterly profits have tripled year over year during the third quarter of 2020, topping $6.3 billion.

It’s a similar story at Apple, 18 miles from the school, which recorded profits of over $57 billion in 2020, up from $55.2 billion a year ago. This year, Facebook’s third-quarter profits topped $7.8 billion, 20 percent more than in the same period last year.

Google declined to respond to questions about its charitable giving. Heather Dickinson, a Google spokesperson, referring to its most recent third-quarter press release, which doesn’t mention the words “charity” or “donation” or even “coronavirus.” To be fair, Google made a $100 million commitment to Covid-19 response, in addition to direct cash assistance to vulnerable families through multiple nonprofits and $10 million to support remote learning, according to a separate release issued by the company.

Similarly, Amazon spokesperson Allison Flicker declined to answer questions about how the company’s charitable giving has changed. She pointed to a blog post about its recent donations. The post, dated Dec. 16, highlights $20 million for Covid-19 research and $23 million to support relief efforts in Europe, among other contributions. In addition, the company said this year that CEO Jeff Bezos made a $100 million personal donation to Feeding America, the country’s largest domestic hunger relief organization. According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, Bezos is worth $188 billion, making him the richest person in the world.

On Dec. 15, Bezos’ ex-wife, MacKenzie Scott, announced that she had given away $4.1 billion to 384 organizations in all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. In California, recipients include Goodwill of Silicon Valley, the Central California Food Bank, the YMCA of San Francisco, United Way Bay Area and others.

Apple and Facebook defended how much they have given.

“We’ve donated hundreds of millions of dollars to relief efforts around the world, and closer to home we’ve provided grants to close to 100 organizations across California, including many in the Bay Area,” Rachel Tulley, an Apple spokeswoman, said in a statement. “And as many housing developments have been put on hold, we’ve accelerated our spending on affordable housing across the state, deploying over $500 million this year to support thousands of Californians.”

Chloe Meyere, a Facebook spokesperson, said by email that the company has committed “hundreds of millions to support communities,” including across the San Francisco Bay Area and California. She added that “this has included more than $200 million to create affordable housing, support frontline healthcare workers and small businesses, provide food to those who need it, aid wildfire relief efforts, and help with distance learning.”

Different approaches

Part of the charitable giving gap stems from where wealthy Silicon Valley executives give their money. Many local billionaires, including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Uber co-founder Garrett Camp and Tesla CEO Elon Musk have signed onto the Giving Pledge, a promise to “publicly commit to giving the majority of their wealth to philanthropy.” But the commitment doesn’t mandate that they give any money now, nor does it compel them to donate in their backyards.

“Silicon Valley has not been very locally focused. They say, ‘What major changes can we make to society?’ as opposed to traditional giving, which is shelters, food banks, which is the most urgent need right now,” said Brian Mittendorf, an accounting professor and philanthropy expert at Ohio State University.

Some philanthropy experts say that historically, Big Tech hasn’t done a great job supporting charities that are doing immediate, on-the-ground work locally. Rob Reich, director of the Center for Ethics in Society and co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, said that in Silicon Valley, donors often get bogged down by process and analysis rather than provide direct aid.

“The technocratic and engineering influence behind how people made their money carried into their philanthropy,” he said.

When Silicon Valley’s wealthy make donations locally, they tend to give them to higher education institutions and hospitals, according to a landmark study by Open Impact, a consultancy, which examined charitable giving in Silicon Valley in 2016. For example, Zuckerberg and Benioff have contributed a combined $175 million to the city’s two iconic hospitals, which have been named after them.