Has Lays Gone Too Far in Claiming Their Chips Are "Local"?

09/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Tara Lohan Environmental journalist writing about water, energy, tech and politics.

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."

While money is a big issue for the company, it has foodies and enviros ticked off -- and for good reason. To read more about the ads, the blowback, and the many other companies that are trying to pass off their products (from books to banks) as local, you can read the full article I've written for AlterNet.