Sunday, October 31, 2010

One health blogger's change of heart over Pepsi Refresh

My readers know by now that I am not exactly a fan of PepsiCo's mega-marketing campaign disguised as philanthropy known as the Pepsi Refresh Project. As I wrote about previously, the nation's largest food company is exploiting schoolchildren as young as age 6 in an effort to brand itself as the world's savior.

Even  healthy food projects are lining up to feed at the trough of Pepsi Refresh, without a hint of shame that these corporate, tax-deductible donations rely on sales of Cheetos and Mountain Dew.

So I was surprised and disappointed when I noticed fellow health blogger, Megan Yarbrough post to Twitter a call to vote for a Pepsi Refresh project. Because I know we are usually on the same page, I reached out to her privately with a direct message and asked that she not promote this awful program. She responded immediately, acknowledging my concern and recently posted to her blog about how I changed her mind. Here is that eloquent post in its entirety:
I’ll admit, when I first heard about the Pepsi Refresh Project, I couldn’t have been more on-board with the idea if I tried.
Times are tight right now. And although we’re in a recession, that hasn’t stopped the problems we face as a nation from continuing to grow. If anything, it’s worsened them. The simple fact is: communities need money. And nonprofits desperately need money just to continue the great work they are doing – forget about starting new, game-changing initiatives. So at first, I saw Pepsi Refresh as a great opportunity for the do-gooders of our country to get the financing they require to really improve the lives of people all over our nation.
I thought it was so fantastic, in fact, that I was involved in more than one attempt to enter the Pepsi Refresh Project. Both for great causes. Sure Pepsi is a part of a lot of the problems we face as a nation. But shouldn’t corporations give back more often, particularly in times of great need? And while I wasn’t naive enough to not recognize that the entire Pepsi Refresh Project was a brilliant PR move, I thought it was also great opportunity for worthy causes to fund amazing projects all across the nation.
I was wrong, but it took me awhile to accept my realization that Pepsi Refresh ultimately harms our society – not helps it. That realization came to me after I became more involved with the food revolution movement and read Michele Simon’s book, Appetite for Profit.
PepsiCo, not just a maker of soda, but also the maker of Frito-Lay products, isn’t just a part of a lot of the problems we face as a nation – PepsiCo itself is a huge problem. If we ever hope to change the direction our country is headed, we need to fundamentally change the way we function as a society. We need to change our understanding of food, and change the way we eat. The type of food and beverages we need to reclaim our nation’s health really don’t come ready-made in a box, bag, or can.
As Michele Simon writes on her blog, “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.”
Yet, knowing this, I gave in last week when a cause that means a lot to me asked me to retweet their Pepsi Refresh project to my followers. That’s when Michele Simon (@Appetite4Profit) sent me a direct message to remind me that as a public health advocate, I really should not – cannot – promote the Pepsi Refresh Project. She put it in terms I could easily relate to given my involvement in tobacco control: “imagine if PM [Philip Morris] were promoting it.”
Big Food corporations are following the tobacco industry’s footsteps step-by-step. And I mean exactly. If you read about the tobacco industry’s deceptive marketing, their false health claims, the life-saving legislation they constantly defeat with the millions of dollars they spend on lobbying, the way they promote their products overseas in the developing world, and the way they set up fake science institutes to conduct “research” … and substitute ‘Big Tobacco’ for ‘Big Food’ – the two can be used interchangeably.
Food companies spend over $36 billion a year to market their products. They wouldn’t spend that kind of money, nor would they give away millions of dollars in the name of philanthropy, if they didn’t know for a fact that it is effective in getting people to buy their products. They want you to think that they aren’t part of America’s health problem – they are part of the solution. And, of course (just like the tobacco industry), they love to remind you that personal responsibility is part of the solution as well, since they know you don’t really want to give up those dinners from a bag either.
So, my friends, that is why I will no longer be tweeting about your very-worthy project or organization’s attempt to win a Pepsi Refresh grant. I admire your work, but I can’t go against the very ideas I preach.
If you’re interested in learning more (or if perhaps you think I’m crazy), I highly encourage you to check out Michele Simon’s blog, Appetite for Profit, as well as her book. One particular post worth reading describes how elementary school students in Illinois expressed their thanks to Pepsi after winning a Pepsi Refresh grant. Hopefully you’ll see the problem with the picture painted for you. Another great resource is Value the Meal, a blog by Corporate Accountability International.
Thank you Megan, for saying it so well. But mostly, thank you for taking a look at this issue more deeply, being willing to change your mind, and then speaking out about it. And if your friends are also harassing you to vote, just point them to Megan's post instead.

In the wake of Jon Stewart's recent call for a more civilized discourse in our nation, this experience gives me hope. Maybe if we could each stop and listen to each other, learn about an issue, and not react in haste, mindlessly forwarding emails, posting to Facebook, or retweeting what others (even our friends) want us to, things could get a little better. Maybe.


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