Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., plans to contribute more than 1.1 billion pounds of food over the next five years as part of a $2 billion donation toward U.S. hunger relief efforts.

Donations will include fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy products for food banks and other charity groups, as well as refrigerated trucks to ship food, Wal-Mart said in a statement today. The donation is expected to provide more than 1 billion meals for needy families, Wal-Mart said.

As the economy slumped, U.S. hunger rates reached the highest levels in 15 years, with nearly 15 percent of households lacking access to adequate food supplies, Wal-Mart said, citing a November 2009 Agriculture Department report.

“Increasingly, we see opportunities to use our scale and reach to solve challenges in our communities,” Eduardo Castro-Wright, Wal-Mart’s vice chairman, said in the statement.

“By working together, we believe we can reach a day where no individual in this country has to go to bed hungry or worry if there will be food to put on the table tomorrow,” Castro-Wright said.

In addition to 1.1 billion pounds of food valued at $1.75 billion, Wal-Mart plans to provide grants totaling $250 million to hunger relief organizations at national, state and local levels.

Based on Wal-Mart donations in recent years, at least half of the food will be fresh produce, meat and dairy products, company officials said.

About 28 percent of Wal-Mart’s donated food in recent years was fresh produce, while about 25 percent was fresh meat and dairy, Margaret McKenna, president of the Wal-Mart Foundation, said during a media conference call following today’s release.

The company hopes to increase the amount of fresh food donations in coming years, McKenna said.
Wal-Mart’s beneficiaries will include Chicago-based Feeding America, the largest U.S. hunger relief organization with more than 200 food banks in 50 states.

Among the initial grants, Wal-Mart said it will provide $6 million to buy 60 refrigerated trucks for Feeding America, adding to the 69 the retailer previously donated.

“With 49 million Americans struggling with hunger, our country is in crisis,” Vicki Escarra, Feeding America’s chief executive officer, said in today’s statement.

Wal-Mart also will donate $2 million toward the National Recreation and Park Association’s summer feeding program.

Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart is the biggest U.S. food retailer, with about a fifth of the total market, according to analyst estimates.

In Wal-Mart’s fiscal 2010, which ended Jan. 31, the company had nearly $132 billion in revenue from groceries, excluding Sam’s Club stores, according to recent government filings.