Saturday, May 7, 2011

In Denial? Health Organizations that Take Money From Pepsi, Coke, etc. are Damaging the Healthy Food Movement and Public Health

Ever since sugary drink taxes were proposed, Big Beverage has been in a philanthropic frenzy trying to co-opt as many groups as possible.  Witness recent Big Beverage donations to:
o     The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for obesity prevention programs – I kid you not! ($10 million was promised if Philly did not pass a sugary drink tax – they didn’t and the donation was made)
o     The American Academy of Family Physicians for a partnership with Coca-Cola
o     Save the Children ($5 Million from PepsiCo) and the promise of a major grant donation from Coca-Cola, all to get the organization to stop advocating for passage of sugary drink taxes (they stopped advocating).

It's time for a thoughtful discussion among advocates on whether health, wellness, food security and other organizations should accept funding from junk food purveyors like Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, McDonald’s or Frito Lay, or if it’s best to accept no funding at all from the food/beverage industry.  

It's clear that Pepsi and other beverage brands use their philanthropy to purchase allies and silence potential critics, just like Big Tobacco did.  What's amazing is how many important organizations that do good work are in denial on this issue. The most common defense is that there is much good work that can be done -- even with tainted, special interest money -- and that accepting funding from a company like PepsiCo doesn't impact their organization's advocacy positions on sugary drinks. That doesn't hold water, as the Save the Children debacle demonstrated and it's hard to believe that health organizations and others would not feel obliged to "tone down" their rhetoric on topics that might make PepsiCo withhold future donations.

In addition, by accepting funding from a company like PepsiCo, health organizations and others are simultaneously promoting a brand that markets junk food and unhealthy sugary beverages – specifically targeting kids, teens and low-income consumers.  Is that the message they want to deliver to their constituents?

No doubt there is a dearth of funding for the projects and advocacy that many well-intentioned groups are involved in. However, deep pocketed companies like Coke, Pepsi and McDonald’s are well aware of the lack of funding and that’s what makes their “philanthropy” so devious.  They know that if they dangle funding in front of cash-starved health/wellness/food security and other groups, they will find many takers – and simultaneously silence potential critics of their products and marketing practices.     

The current, hyper-publicized Pepsi Refresh campaign that is attracting hundreds of small projects in an online competition -- a good number of which are health related -- is just another high profile way for Pepsi to use its deep pockets to improve its image and silence critics. Pepsi is hardly the only brand blanketing America with philanthropy designed to win friends and influence legislators. According to a marketing executive who is extremely cognizant of beverage and fast food industry marketing to the Hispanic and African American communities, “In minority communities fast food and Big Soda have aligned with practically every recognized advocacy and aspirational non-profit organization.”

That’s not by accident. It’s clearly a carefully thought out strategy (remarkably similar to the strategy of Big Tobacco) to try to buy silence from as many organizations, market segments and communities as possible. 

In my opinion, organizations that accept this type of tainted, special interest money not only damage their credibility but are complicit in presenting Big Beverage/fast food purveyors (and their products, by association) as benevolent benefactors. This sets back the healthy food movement, probably by years, and that's exactly what companies like PepsiCo are banking on.

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