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

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?

One would think not. After all, how to tell if you're actually eating potatoes from the farm closest to you, assuming there even is one close to you? Well, if you're curious, you can check out their "chip tracker" online tool that lets you put in your ZIP code and the product code on the bag, and it will tell you where your chips came from.

Clever, right? Well, let's see who's fooled.

USA Today's article about the ad campaign questioned whether the Lay's was actually tricking consumers by using the term "local":

"They're trying to confuse consumers with something consumers already are confused about," says Dawn Brighid, marketing manager at Sustainable Table, a group in support of "green" eating. "Most of their products are obviously grown on industrial farms."

Frito-Lay's new positioning for Lay's is not authentic, says Kate Newlin, consultant and author of Passion Brands. "They're trying to take a big, huge brand and make it look tiny. It's a shell game."

So, then, what really is "local" when it comes to food?

What's in a Name?

Needless to say, there has been quite a bit of blowback from foodies and environmentalists angry that, once again, industry has decided to co-opt a movement designed to provide an alternative to industrial food. It's a little reminiscent of Wal-Mart going organic.

Mostly the issue comes down to the semantics. Do corporations get to take community movements and make them marketing slogans? If anything, at least this may force us to a take closer look at what "local food" and "locally grown" really means.

For most of us familiar with the pre-Lay's version of "local," the term conjured food grown, not just close by, but on a small scale, like by family farmers with a regard for the land they work on and the people they work with.

That's apparently not what Lay's had in mind. The Web site Unchained America (which chronicles life without chain stores) pretty much debunks the ad campaign word for word, including many of the farmers featured in the ads. Here's a bit:

Every farm is "local" if you're living near it. However, the farms belonging to the farmers in the "Lay's Local" ad campaign are mostly huge industrial farms. From size to crop rotation to fertilizers and pesticides to machines and heavy equipment to subsidies, they display many of the characteristics that distinguish industrial farming from local farming.

For example, Walther Farms consists of individual farms (which allows the owners to collect farm subsidies) in six states and one foreign country that grow potatoes on 14,000 acres. In 2008, Walther Farms had only 8,000 acres in six states, they produced 400 million pounds -- that's 200,000 tons -- of potatoes for Frito-Lay. Those potatoes represented 85 percent of their entire crop. The remaining 15 percent they sold to big-box stores, which sold them for cooking.

But of course, there is more to local food than just where it is grown. There's also the processing, distribution and the eating. Unchained America again:

Perhaps the most important aspect of buying local is that the money you spend buying local products stays in your community. And here is precisely where the "Lay's Local" claims for being local fall apart. These seven farmers don't send their chipping potatoes to locally owned processing plants, but to ones owned by Frito-Lay, whose corporate headquarters are in Plano, Texas.

Moreover, when the Frito-Lay plant makes the potatoes into Lay's Potato Chips, the money the grocer pays for them does not remain in the farmers' communities or even regions, but goes to Frito-Lay corporate headquarters in Plano, Texas.

And when Lay's Potato Chips are sold, who sells them? Mostly regional and chain stores such as Wal-Mart, Meijers and Target. True, if the store happens to be locally or regionally owned, the money does stay in that locality or region. But if the store is a multistate or national chain, the money goes to corporate headquarters.

No matter how much clever advertising they dream up, this is campaign is far from palatable.

It's Not Just Small Potatoes

While Frito-Lay may be trying to cash in on the local-foods movement, they are certainly not alone. Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance writes in a fascinating article that the list is long, and it's not just about food, either. Here are a few things she points out:

  • Starbucks has "un-branded" three of it's Seattle coffee shops and is calling them 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea. "The Starbucks corporate logo is nowhere to be seen," she writes.
  • "HSBC, one of the biggest banks on the planet, has taken to calling itself, 'the world's local bank.' "
  • "The International Council of Shopping Centers, a global consortium of mall owners and developers, is pouring millions of dollars into television ads urging people to 'Shop Local' -- at their nearest mall."
  • "Barnes & Noble, the world's top seller of books, has launched a video blog site under the banner 'All book-selling is local.' "

Mitchell gives a shocking array of information about the co-opting of the local movement, including campaigners in Fresno, Calif., who decided to define "buying local" in their own way: "Just so you know, buying local means any store in your community: mom-and-pop stores, national chains, big-box stores -- you name it."

If you care anything about the buy-local movement, then this all starts to seem a bit scary. But there may be a bit of a silver lining.

All this means is that the authentic local movement has gained so much traction that big corporations are tripping over themselves trying to find ways to rip off the concept. As Mitchell points out in her article, there is a fear of "local-washing," where the term becomes so diluted that there's not much left of it's true intent. And "perhaps local-washing will ultimately make corporations even more suspect and further the case for shifting our economy more in the direction of small-scale, local and independent."

The good news is that trend reporting shows that the concept of buying local has jumped with consumers and it has helped to fuel the growth of small businesses even as big-box stores are feeling the heat of a drastically slowed economy.

It's also further proof that you can vote with your money. When people decide to buy from local retailers and farmers, corporations take notice.

Let's also hope the corporations peddling their faux-local wares will notice the public outrage to their misguided campaigns.

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