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Lays Touting Their Potato Chips as Locally Grown -- Have They Gone Too Far?

Frito-Lay is trying to co-opt a movement designed specifically to provide an alternative to industrial food.

A few weeks ago, Chicago commuters witnessed the unbelievable -- as busy subway travelers at the Jackson stop bustled between trains in a tunnel, many were shocked to see that the ceiling tiles had broken away above them to reveal the fat bulbs of potatoes growing out of clumps of soil. Or so it seemed.

Sadly, invasive tubers taking over the transit system were merely just an ad stunt for Lay's Potato Chips. Accompanying posters in the hallway read, "Our potatoes are grown closer than you think."

This was the latest in a massive campaign launched in May by Frito-Lay North America, the $12 billion "convenient foods business unit" of PepsiCo. Eager to cash in on a growing local-foods movement, the chip company has been hoping to convince consumers that buying Lays means buying local.

They'll likely have a long way to go with that message. For most locavores, buying local usually means shopping at your independent Main Street retailer or farmers market, not buying processed foods from a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

As the New York Times explained when the campaign was announced:

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.

In the article, the Times quoted Bay Area food writer Jessica Prentice who had coined the "locavore" term:

"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."

So what is it all about? Well, money, of course. USA Today reported, "A national survey of restaurant chefs by the National Restaurant Association found 'locally grown' food to be the hottest industry trend for 2009."

Mass-Producing Local

While the most ardent locavores, who truly grasp the intent behind the local-food movement, will not be swayed by a fancy ad campaigns about potato chips, it's likely the masses just may. Or at least that's what Frito-Lay will be hoping for.

Since May, it has launched a series of 30-second national and regional television ads that feature farmers standing in front of green fields or in barns piled high with spuds. They ride tractors, joke with their dad or brother, point to family members in photos and talk about how many generations they've been farming and how long their family has grown potatoes for Lay's. They hold up a single potato in their hand and say things like, "We grow potatoes in New England, Lay's makes potato chips in New England, so that's a pretty good fit." Of course the place changes -- from California to Michigan to Florida to Texas. But you get the idea.

And that's not all. The campaign features 40,000 in-store displays customized by state, and the company said in a press release, "the brand also will participate in more than 50 local-market events throughout the country celebrating the local communities that play a role in making Lay's Potato Chips, ranging from the Maine Potato Blossom Festival to the Hall of Fame Parade in Canton, Ohio, to the Utah Pioneer Days."

The company says it has 80 farms in 27 states growing potatoes and has processing plants in 18 states. So if you happen to live near one of those farms or one of those processing plants, does that make the chips "local" when you eat them?

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