Sunday, September 19, 2010

Why are healthy food advocates stumping for Pepsi?

As I wrote last month, it can get pretty annoying when your friends harass you to vote for their favorite cause to "win" a grant from the now-ubiquitous Pepsi Refresh Project.

But lately I've been especially disappointed to see so many worthy food causes jumping on this marketing-disguised-as-philanthropy bandwagon. Let's not forget that PepsiCo owns not only  Pepsi-Cola and other unhealthy beverage lines such as Gatorade, but is also the king of salty snacks. The company's Frito-Lay division owns Doritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, you get the idea.

And yet without a hint of irony, in this promotional video to get people to submit project ideas to the contest, the Pepsi Refresh Project "Food and Shelter Ambassador" Allison Arieff waxes sentimental about gardening, surrounded by nothing but greenery, not a soda or chip in sight.

Here are just a few projects that have so far been crowned winners of Pepsi Refresh grants: First, there is the Bikeloc project. Pepsi introduces the celebratory video this way:
Robert DuBois and Aaron Zueck are "potlucking across America" in one hundred days, and they're doing it on bicycles. A $5,000 Pepsi Refresh grant put them in the saddle and allowed them to collect multimedia stories of the local food movement from coast to coast.
Just $5,000, was there really no other way of raising that money? Another project also won $5,000, this time for a school garden at an elementary school. Here's how Pepsi describes it:
Jeanne Acutanza had the idea to build a sustainable garden at her kids' school, where students and locals could plant crops together and donate the harvest to local food banks. She submitted her idea, you voted, and it won a $5,000 Pepsi Refresh Grant.
And in another heartwarming kid project, a farmers market manager in Illinois featured here describes how he won $25,000 to help teach schoolchildren about eating fresh fruits and vegetables, a worthy cause for sure. But what about the mixed messages kids receive from all the promotion with Pepsi logos associated with these two projects?

Now, it's no wonder that in these hard economic times, so many groups would be desperate enough to turn to the nation's largest purveyor of processed food to try and promote the healthy kind. But what these organizations don't realize is that are really doing more to promote the Pepsi brand then they are to advance their own cause. Indeed, they are undermining the very ideals they espouse.

Moreover, these grants give credibility to the notion that we can (and should) rely on Big Food to fix our broken food system. But nothing could be further from the truth. PepsiCo is happy to spend relatively small amounts of money in exchange for getting to hitch its PR wagon to the likes of farmers markets and school gardens.

Meanwhile, the sale of junk food and soda continues unabated.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

While we battle over ingredients like HFCS, Big Food is winning the processed food war

If there was Twitter for food only, today's trending topic would have been the Big News that the Corn Refiners Association (yes, there are lobbyists for people who refine corn) is asking the Food and Drug Administration to rename high-fructose corn syrup (aka HFCS) "corn sugar." This, the latest in the corn industry's attempts to restore the tarnished reputation of its omnipresent by-product. Tara Parker-Pope, health blogger for the New York Times, quotes Audrae Erickson, president of CRA, who explains:
Clearly the name is confusing consumers. Research shows that ‘corn sugar’ better communicates the amount of calories, the level of fructose and the sweetness in this ingredient.
Clearly the name is confusing? That must explain the PR campaign the corn refiners embarked on not long ago (cutely dubbed "sweet surprise") to un-confuse consumers. But now, focus group results in hand, industry is doing what they do even better than PR: lobby the federal government to get its way.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tweet Responsibly: Tips for being an effective food activist (or any other kind) on Twitter

First of all, I am no Twitter expert. But after about 6 months I've noticed a few things that drive me nuts. Because 140 characters is insufficient to explain, I'm airing my concerns in this longer format. I've been writing about the food industry, food policy, and the politics of food for about 14 years now, and as a lawyer, I take pride in being accurate about policy, as well as industry practices. While I am used to writing in long format, I also appreciate the fun of saying things quickly and succinctly.

What I love most about Twitter is sharing with, and learning from, my fellow food activists, writers, experts, parents, and just anyone who cares about the politics of what's on our plate. I love the up-to-the-minute news, blog posts, action alerts, and even the waxing sentimental about whatever local food is in season.

But what I don't like is the sloppiness that typing up to 140 characters at lightning speed can sometimes foster. Lately I have felt the urge to correct a few things being posted to Twitter. Now I realize it may be annoying when I hit reply and wag my finger, but I think accuracy is important. So if it can't be said correctly in 140 characters, than either be very vague, just give the url, or leave it alone. And here are few more rules for how to be an effective activist on Twitter:

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Why is McDonald's listed a resource for Childhood Obesity Awareness Month?

I am not a fan of any sort of "awareness" month as I find the concept trivializes important health issues. Are we only supposed to care about heart disease, diabetes, etc, during that one month of the year? And I rarely see anything of substance come from the month-long activities, just the usual ineffective educational campaigns, instead of meaningful public policy reforms. Plus many issues tend to crowd themselves into certain months, so it all becomes background noise. September is one such month. Among other causes (e.g., "cholesterol education"), September has been proclaimed "Childhood Obesity Awareness Month" by Congress and President Obama.