Public health campaigners, scholars, dietitians, journalists, politicians, filmmakers, celebrity chefs and the public frequently lambaste fast food corporations for causing and exacerbating the global obesity “crisis”.
It is hardly surprising then that the global food and drink industry (also described by critics as “big food”) is keen to promote itself as “part of the solution”.
In 2011, the International Food & Beverage Alliance (IFBA) – a formalised coalition between multinational giants Nestlé, General Mills, Ferrero, Kellogg Company, Grupo Bimbo, Mondelēz International (formerly Kraft Foods), Mars, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever (and recent addition McDonald’s) – wrote to Dr Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO):
“We all recognise that non-communicable diseases and childhood obesity are major public health problems that require multi-stakeholder solutions. As a member of the private sector, we firmly believe that the food industry has a role to play as part of the solution, and have committed our time, expertise and resources to do our part.”
In order for the IFBA and its member companies to be seen to be providing “solutions” to obesity, corporate philanthropy has been employed as a key strategy.
From ‘big food’ to ‘big philanthropy’
I use the phrase corporate philanthropy as an umbrella term to describe a range of practices (including corporate social responsibility, corporate citizenship, stakeholder management) whereby corporations “give” money, personnel, equipment and support to other organisations.
This is a form of corporate giving that Samantha King and others describe as “strategic philanthropy”; a type of “philanthrocapitalism” that is intimately tied to the business interests of the corporation.
Nestlé, for instance, states that its global nutrition, health and wellness program - Creating Shared Value - “is not about philanthropy. It is about leveraging core activities and partnerships for the joint benefit of people in the countries where we operate and of our shareholders."
Corporate philanthropy is, therefore, not simply altruism by another name. It is part of a business strategy to look after the financial interests of shareholders, penetrate and retain markets, and improve the bottom line.
Fast food philanthropy ‘in action’
There are numerous examples of fast food philanthropy across the globe.
Educational programs and resources are a key target of corporate philanthropy, particularly those that claim to promote healthy lifestyles. For instance, the “Nestlé Healthy Kids Global Program” has been implemented in 73 countries, including the “Nestlé Healthy Active Kids Program” in Australia and “Be Healthy, Be Active” in New Zealand.
Kellogg’s created the “Mission Nutrition®” program in Canada. The Coca-Cola Company provided EducAnimando con Salud Program (“Teaching and Encouraging with Health”) in Peru, A Scuola inForma (“At School In Shape”) nutrition education program in Italy, and many more.
Big food also uses philanthropic gifting to help market “active, healthy living” campaigns, such as The Coca-Cola Company’s “National Active Lifestyle Campaign” in Latvia and global advertisements that attempt to “teach” the public about the importance of energy balance.
In the US, the PepsiCo Foundation partnered with Save the Children to implement its “Healthy Lifestyles” program, while the General Mills Foundation helped advertise the “Presidential Youth Fitness Program”, part of General Mills’ “community engagement mission [to] nourish our communities globally with remarkable philanthropy”.
Sponsorship of sporting and physical activity initiatives is another critical element. These include The Coca-Cola Company’s “Get the Ball Rolling” initiative in the US, PepsiCo’s support of Caravano do Esporte (Sports Caravan) in Brazil, Mars' partnership with the Al Haraka Baraka (“Movement is a Blessing”) physical activity program, and the “Champions of Play for the Olympic Games” from McDonald’s.
Scientific research is also influenced by corporate philanthropy. For example, a number of people have recently criticised the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN) for receiving “an unrestricted gift from The Coca-Cola Company”. There is a shared concern that this sort of funding “taints” research and evidence.
Health-washing big food
Philanthropy is more than just a strategy for big food to “solve” obesity. It is a business tactic to “health-wash” food and drink corporations and their products.
By philanthropically funding various educational resources, physical activity initiatives, scientific research and marketing campaigns, big food attempts to divert the public’s attention from less agreeable, less healthy practices (e.g. junk food marketing, hidden sugar in processed food).
Simultaneously, this philanthropy is a strategy that attempts to gain a “halo effect” for the corporation; an endeavour to shape consumers’ image of the corporation (and its products) as healthy, but also socially responsible, even caring.
This is a new brand of philanthropy, one intrinsically tied to developing big food’s self-interest: brand image and loyalty, public relations, and avoidance of stricter regulations and legislation.
For big food, obesity is no longer a big problem. In fact, obesity-related philanthropy is helping it profit.