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GREENWASHING ALERT: Frito-Lay Co-opts Local Food Movement, and More on the Way

You can easily tell when a social movement has begun to take hold and actually make real change: when it’s co-opted by corporations. And today marks that moment when the local food movement is officially legitimized in the scariest sense. And that means the real fight has begun.

According to the New York Times:

On Tuesday [May 12, 2009], five potato farmers rang the bell of the New York Stock Exchange, kicking off a marketing campaign that is trying to position the nation’s best-selling brand of potato chips as local food.

Five different ads will highlight farmers who grow some of the two billion pounds of starchy chipping potatoes the Frito-Lay company uses each year. One is Steve Singleton, who tends 800 acres in Hastings, Fla. “We grow potatoes in Florida, and Lays makes potato chips in Florida,” he says in the ad. “It’s a pretty good fit.”

…Frito-Lay is one of several big companies that, along with some large-scale farming concerns, are embracing a broad interpretation of what eating locally means. This mission creep has the original locavores choking on their yerba mate. But food executives who measure marketing budgets in the millions say they are mining the concept because consumers care more than ever about where their food comes from.

But according to Jessica Prentice, author of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection and co-author of the San Francisco and NYC Local Foods Wheels, and the original creator of the term “locavore,” this is completely bogus:

“The local foods movement is about an ethic of food that values reviving small scale, ecological, place-based, and relationship-based food systems,” Ms. Prentice said. “Large corporations peddling junk food are the exact opposite of what this is about.”

But people on the other side of the argument say the widening view of what it means to eat locally is similar to the changes the term organic went through as it grew from a countercultural ideal in the 1960s and 1970s to an industry with nearly $25 billion in sales last year. A related debate about how to define sustainable farming is now gathering force in government, agriculture and business.

So now Frito-Lay is going to be marketed as local food? Why, because it’s close to something else? According to a related interview with Jessica Prentice on NPR’s Marketplace, Frito-Lay relies on 80 farms to provide its potatoes. So, if according to the New York Times, Frito-Lay uses 2 billion pounds of potatoes each year, that means they produce an average of 25 million pounds of potatoes per farm. As Chelsea Greener Jonathan Teller-Elsberg says, “These farms are so big, of course they’re local—when something covers a bajillion acres, anyone is bound to be within reach of the pesticide fumigating flight path.” Righty-o. But wait. It gets worse.

Other companies are embracing the term “local” in their own ways. Foster Farms, a $1 billion company that is the largest producer of poultry products on the West Coast, markets its fresh chicken and turkey as “locally grown” because it contracts with hundreds of local growers in the states where it operates.

Some producers are stretching local to mean locale, emphasizing the geographic origin of their food. Dairy products from California, oranges from Florida and almost anything made in Vermont are getting special attention from marketers. Kraft is trying to figure out whether people in Wisconsin will buy more pickles if they know the cucumbers that go into a jar of Claussen’s are grown there.

“The ingenuity of the food manufacturers and marketers never ceases to amaze me,” said Michael Pollan, the author of “In Defense of Food” and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine. “They can turn any critique into a new way to sell food. You’ve got to hand it to them.”

But don’t hand it to them. Please don’t. It’s such a classically corporate American move; taking something that has real meaning and possibility for social change, and shrink-wrapping it into a marketing campaign to benefit the fat cats and squash grassroots communities. Frito-Lay is not joining the local food movement. They’re co-opting it, disguised as a jump onto the bandwagon of those who are actually trying to support local farmers, the very notion of which now has to be clarified. Jessica Prentice says:

“You know the locavore phenomenon is having an impact when the corporations begin co-opting it…Everyone should know where things are processed. The ‘where’ question is really important.”

Frito-Lay, we SEE YOU! You can’t fool us even with a new sticker, no way.

Read the whole NY Times article here.


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