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.


Liz Snyder said...

Thanks for writing this Michelle. When I was in charge of grants for several food-related nonprofits I consciously made the decision not to apply for this grant.

It would be one thing if Pepsi set up a foundation arm (a la Kellogg), but its such a blatant marketing ploy - and pitifully small grants to boot! Imagine if Kellogg had a "Tony the Tiger" grant program that required that you promote frosted flakes on Facebook to compete for "votes"?!?

My best,

Liz Snyder

Anonymous said...

"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."

Michelle, what makes you think they don't realize this?

The rest of your piece is spot on.

Michele Simon said...

Sorry for late reply, been on the road. The reason I think that these groups don't realize they are promoting Pepsi more than their own cause is that they will often say things like, I don't drink Pepsi, as if that excuses it. And if they did realize it, why would they engage it?

Unknown said...

Reply to Liz Snyder.
Kellogg DID sponsor such a grant program just last year. It was called Plant-a-Seed. Our middle school won a new sports field because our community sent the most newcomers to Kellogg's website to vote for us. Parents threw a breakfast celebration. A notice went out to the PTA "It's BYOFF (Bring Your Own Frosted Flakes!); or if you prefer, for a small donation we'll have limited FF's, milk, etc." The contest was a huge promotional event for Kellogg nationwide. There was very little objection to the crass corporate-junk-food-marketing-to-children aspect of it all.

Great blog, Michele!

Jane Welna
Takoma Park, MD

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