Defending a Food Industry Giant (I Can’t Believe I’m Doing This)

When I announced here on the blog that I was eschewing the tradition of giving things up for Lent, and was rather going to think of Lent as a time to give back, I mentioned a couple of campaigns that are happening right now on the web that allow ordinary people to share photos or descriptions of the meals they eat in a day, then equate those shares to real meals donated to people dealing with food insecurity.  One of the sites I mentioned was the Kellogg’s Share Your Breakfast campaign.  I’ve been participating in their endeavor; I didn’t think it was a questionable thing to do.

However, over at the Huffington Post, food writer Kristin Wartman has taken exception to the Kellogg’s campaign.  She blasts the idea, saying that a corporate food giant like Kellogg’s has no business donating breakfasts to needy kids unless they cease to donate their own food products and just give cash (presumably, so somebody ELSE can provide the food).  Kellogg’s breakfast products, Wartman argues, have questionable nutritional value; they’re processed and therefore are full of additives; and Kellogg’s can’t possibly have any real altruistic motive behind the campaign, other than as a huge marketing scheme.

I’ll grant her that it’s a marketing scheme.  But guess what?  Just because something is a genius marketing idea doesn’t mean that it can’t ALSO be a great community service endeavor; and just because it’s being carried out by a giant of the food industry whose products you may or may not view with approval, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their motives are completely spotty.  Wartman quotes the Senior VP of Marketing and Innovation for Kellogg’s as saying,  “We find there’s a lot of people who don’t have access to breakfast.  We just felt like as the breakfast leader, we should do something about that.”  She doesn’t appear to believe him, but I actually think he may be telling the truth.  I refuse to take a completely jaded approach to this situation; while it would be easy to blow the whole thing off as a clever marketing ploy insincerely concocted by the Kellogg’s team, I choose to think that maybe, just maybe, they actually thought that food insecurity among kids was a problem, and that they might have something to donate that would help that problem.  Like food.  Along the way, yes, it becomes an excellent PR opportunity, and they’d be fools not to market the bejesus out of it — but that doesn’t mean they’re not at all concerned about the problem.

As for the nutritional value of Kellogg’s products, and Wartman’s careful deconstruction of all the advertising hype and predictable buzzwords the company uses to obscure how crappy the items really are for kids…true.  Of course.  We’re talking about the food industry; we’re talking about people who make their fortunes off of processed food products; we’re talking about the same type of distorted marketing that exists around almost ALL processed foods.  No surprise there.  But here’s the thing: I don’t care.

I don’t.  I’m sorry.  When we’re talking about feeding children who won’t get anything else for breakfast unless somebody hands them a bowl of donated Kellogg’s Cornflakes, I say give them as many freaking bowls as they want.  HFCS and all.

Wartman’s argument, fundamentally, is that Kellogg’s and other companies like it SHOULD be solving the problem of food insecurity in this country; but they shouldn’t be doing it by donating their own products.  Surely, in a purely ideological sense, she’s right: everyone should have access to the best quality foods, and we shouldn’t be subjecting our poorest citizens to diets filled with the things that are worst for them.  Unfortunately, there are some flaws in her plan.

First of all, we’re talking about corporations who make money by selling food products, and it would be nothing short of ludicrous to expect them to say, “Oh look…people need food…while we have thousands of pounds of the stuff lying around, we’ll overlook that and give money instead, so they can have BETTER food than the junk we make.”  That’s not what any business would do.  Again, if we’re going to be pie-in-the-sky about it, I’d love to see Kellogg’s actually dig deeply into their own practices and completely reformulate their products to leave all the unnecessary nasties out of the cereal boxes.  But that’s the future of food reform in this country, not the present; and all those hungry kids aren’t going to wait while we activists work on banning food additives.  Kellogg’s makes food products, and even if they’re foodlike substances rather than whole, fresh foods, it is better for a kid — for ANYONE — to eat some dastardly Rice Krispies than to eat nothing at all.

Wartman also argues that in donating money rather than actual food, Kellogg’s could provide quality breakfasts for hungry kids.  She writes, “How about providing funds to feed kids real food for breakfast? Eggs, plain yogurt with fresh fruit, oatmeal, a fresh fruit smoothie with yogurt, milk, or nut milk, a slice of real, whole-grain bread with almond or peanut butter…All of these breakfasts can be made in five to 10 minutes without the added sugar or hype.”

I don’t disagree with her, in theory — of course I don’t.  The flaw in the logic here is that we’re talking about free, in-school breakfasts.  There’s no way to know, from school to school and district to district, what the kitchen facilities or staffing are like for a breakfast program.  In many districts I know of, when breakfasts are provided for food-insecure kids, they’re grab-and-go products taken from boxes in the lunchroom or carts outside of homeroom.  Nobody has been hired and paid to prepare fresh items — even the “5 to 10 minute” solutions Wartman outlines.  Nobody’s been given a kitchen, or even counter space, to spread that peanut butter, cook those eggs, blend those smoothies, or wash and slice the fruit for the yogurt parfaits.  There’s no budget.  No time.  No staff.  No nothing.  And the homeroom teachers or school aides are handing out packaged granola bars, or little boxes of cereal and cartons of milk, because that’s what they’ve got to give without access to kitchens.  (By the way, most of them do also hand out a piece of fruit, like a banana — but those don’t need any prep.)

Sure, it would be nice to give kids who can’t afford breakfast a really great nutritional start to their day.  And it would be wonderful if we didn’t have to sneer and scoff at the food companies and take them to task for their ingredients, but could instead enjoy their products without scrutinizing the labels first.  And, yes, the promised $200,000 Kellogg’s has earmarked for these free breakfasts is a drop in the bucket of their bazillion-dollar annual budget.  Could they be doing more?  Always.

But couldn’t we all?  Unless they completely change their whole business model, every formulation (I won’t go so far as to say “recipe”) for every food product they make, and become a non-profit organization providing wholly organic, unprocessed meals to entire third-world countries, I’m not sure they’ll EVER have done enough to satisfy every critic.  Even me.  I’ll say it again: I don’t particularly care for them.  But they’re doing something that is at least, in some small part, right.

Before we start belittling ANYONE — even a corporate giant, even one about which you may feel cynical — for doing something to solve the problem of food insecurity in this country, we should be counting up all the people who are storming school doors in highly food-insecure districts each morning armed with fresh fruit smoothies, homemade (sugar-free!) oatmeal, and egg-white omelets, ready to hand them out to the kids.  Oh, wait.

That’s not happening.  We can debate about the reasons that’s not happening — but that’s another post.  The point is, at this moment in time, THIS moment, there are starving children who are going to school on empty tummies.  And there are no fabulous, organic, additive-free food companies or private chefs or local restaurants or even parent committees showing up to fill the void each morning with enough high-quality breakfasts to take care of this monumental problem on a national scale.  What we’ve got, whether we like it or not, is a food industry giant hawking its own products, for free, and those products are at least FEEDING somebody.  It’s all well and good to be a food activist, and Lord knows I’m no fan of Frosted Flakes for ANYBODY’s child — but neither am I a fan of starving anybody’s child.  And until we fill that gap with something real, we’re going to have to swallow our pride and watch the little ones swallow their processed breakfasts.

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6 Responses to Defending a Food Industry Giant (I Can’t Believe I’m Doing This)

  1. Scatteredmom says:

    I am sitting in a cafe at a ferry terminal, just having traveled from Toronto back to BC where I spent a day in the Kraft kitchen, and I know EXACTLY where you are coming from. I work with kids, help feed hungry ones breakfast and see first hand what goes on with BOTH the kids, the schools, and now a corporation.

    It’s not the corporations responsibility to change the food system. It’s ours-with our grocery dollar, our time, our own two hands in there slicing fruit, dishing out yogurt, and talking to whoever will listen about real food.

    Corporations need to make money. If we want change, WE need to make it happen. There will be lots more about this coming up on my blog too.

    • Absolutely, Karen. Absolutely. And as another commenter pointed out, we can make those decisions to vote with our dollars and our efforts because we have that luxury — I think we miss the forest for the trees when we complain that a food company should be making their charitable donations better, or differently, or more to our liking. The people they’re trying to help are not worried greatly about the ingredients in the cereal. They’re just happy to have cereal. And while the rest of us SHOULD absolutely continue to work as hard as we can to be informed, to make change, and to help others make positive change, we can’t get on high horses and grumble about the quality of assistance when assistance itself is often in short supply.

  2. Blanca says:

    I agree. Would she want these needy children to have a meal or none at all?
    We can bash the food industry all we want, but it’s not their responsibility to feed our children. It’s ours. We decide what we purchase and consume, because we have that luxury. For those in need, you definitely do not make more obstacles for a free meal to become accessible. They are making a decision to give to those in need, let them help.

    • Blanca, that’s so well said — “You definitely do not make more obstacles for a free meal to become accessible.” If big corporations were throwing out others who wanted to help, then we could talk…but there’s no line out the door of people handing out meals to these kids.

  3. Did you read the post by Mark Bittman about McDonald’s serving oatmeal? He was picking at the list of ingredients. While I don’t believe that oatmeal needs any artificial additives I won’t slam McD’s for their oatmeal. I think it’s a step in the right direction. No corporation should be criticized for charitable efforts. It only makes sense for a food company to contribute to feeding people who need to be fed.

    • I DID read that. And I thought, okay, this is what’s in many commercial oatmeals — even the packets most people make at home. I think you’re right in that it’s a step in the right direction; my only quibble is that since McD’s does have kitchens and food workers, they COULD make something that’s a little less junked up. But absolutely, you’re right that it’s not acceptable to criticize corporations for trying to do something good.

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