Mobile Vendor PR Straight From Big Soda Playbook

Mobile Vendor PR Straight From Big Soda Playbook

When most San Franciscans hear “food trucks,” they probably think of the burgeoning trade in artisan Korean tacos and local organic bahn mi, of enterprising immigrant vendors offering handcrafted ethnic specialties from colorful vehicles.

But “food trucks” also include “roach coaches,” purveyors of junk food, candy and sodas. That might be one reason why those fighting proposed state legislation limiting how close to schools mobile food vendors can park are sounding a lot like they’re reading straight from Big Soda’s play book. Could it be that the soda industry is actually lurking in the shadows, quietly orchestrating the opposition effort?

First, some background: In mid February, a bill was introduced in the California state legislature which would have set a 1500 foot limit on how close a mobile vendor could park to any K-12 school in the state. That state bill, AB1678, has since been amended by the author to shorten the proposed keep-back zone from 1,500 feet to 500 feet, and to apply only to public schools instead of all schools, as well as clarifying other issues like trucks on private property. It would also grandfather in any local rules already in place before January 1, 2013, even if they were less restrictive than the state bill.

Current city ordinance in San Francisco keeps mobile food vendors 1,500 feet from public middle and high schools during the day (elementary schools are unaffected), but SF Supervisor Scott Wiener has proposed changes that would bring them to within one block of schools.

No one believes high priced gourmet trucks will target students, but roach coaches will, just as they did when San Francisco schools banned soda in 2003-04. That year, suddenly from one day to the next, there was a chips-, candy- and soda-spewing truck parked in front of many middle and high school, and they came from as far away as Oakland and up the Peninsula to sit in front of SFUSD schools and sell to that lucrative market.

There are plenty of these trucks still operating today all over the Bay Area, but they are happy to stay under the radar and let the nouveau gourmet trucks have the limelight, as the food truck battle heats up. After all, roach coaches are hardly a sympathetic cause, but who doesn't like a minority-woman owned food truck featuring a menu of fresh organic local ingredients?

Characterizing those affected by food legislation as all humble small business operators just trying to make a living is a page right out of the Big Soda playbook.

“The American Beverage Association, which represents powerful companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, has lobbied for years against such commonsense policies as getting soda out of schools,” says Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back. She believes that websites like this one, which sprang up when the Philadelphia City Council was considering a soda tax, appear to be the work of small mom n pop stores, but are in fact fronts for the soda lobby. “That site has ABA’s fingerprints all over it,” Simon told me.

Other common talking points about the mobile vending issue also sound eerily like those used for years by Big Soda.

Big Soda tactic #1: Decry the “unfairness” of targeting any one factor as the source of unhealthy food in kids' diets.

A mobile vending talking point is that the trucks are being singled out as the source of unhealthy food, when in fact kids can buy unhealthy food in lots of places, like fast food joints and corner stores. The American Beverage Association used the same logic when they announced that “Reducing soda consumption is a simplistic and ineffective solution to public health challenges.” Susan Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, said “singling out one item as the cause of obesity completely misses the mark.”

Just because there are other ways kids can get junk food, does that mean we should pass laws to increase the number of opportunities they have to do so? There is no one single thing that can be done to prevent kids from making bad food choices, just as there is no one single thing that can stop child obesity. It has to be many things, including less direct marketing of bad food to kids and more nutrition education, but reducing access to unhealthy choices is an important piece of that puzzle. The fact that keeping roach coaches away from schools does not, in and of itself, eliminate all access to junk food for kids, is not a reason not to have such a law.

Big Soda tactic #2: Make “balance” the buzzword

Wiener has said he is all about wanting to “balance” the need to protect school meal programs with the desire to “provide food diversity and choice for consumers.”

The idea of “balance” gets repeated again and again and again, but “balance” was also the rallying cry for Pepsi in the mid-2000s, when nearly every state was considering some kind of legislation to ban sodas from schools.

Their Balance First materials, which taught that health came not from cutting back on guzzling soda or other empty calories, but rather from a “balance” of caloric intake with exercise, were distributed free to over 3 million elementary school students and to all 15,000 US middle schools. According to SourceWatch, Michele Simon describes Pepsi’s phrase “energy balance” as “an oversimplified term used by food executives to explain obesity in a way that sounds objective and scientific, while conveniently obscuring the overconsumption of their unhealthy products.”

Big Soda tactic #3: Divert attention onto something else

For years soda companies have tried to focus the conversation about fighting obesity onto the need for more physical activity, and away from the role their products play in contributing to the obesity crisis.

Through its Exercise Is Medicine and other initiative, Coke seeks to focus consumer attention on working out more, rather than cutting consumption of empty soda calories, as the true path to a “healthy lifestyle”; the company boasts of 150 physical activity programs in over 100 countries, all presumably designed to shift attention away from the fact that its core product, soda, does not contribute in any way to a truly “healthy lifestyle.” In magic, this is called “misdirection” - keeping the audience's attention focused elsewhere so that they don't see what is really happening.

Those fighting AB1678 came up with a truly clever piece of misdirection by pointing out that a 1500 foot limit around schools would mean that medical marijuana dispensaries were allowed to locate closer to schools (600 feet) than mobile vendors, suggesting “food trucks are more dangerous than marijuana,” as one truck supporter put it.

This shocking concept does indeed divert attention in another direction - until one remembers that it would still be a felony to sell marijuana to a student, regardless of where the dispensary was located. While the proposed amendments to the state bill have been scaled back from 1,500 feet to 500 feet, the 1,500 foot limit is still in effect in San Francisco – where the “easier to buy marijuana” gambit is still in play.

Big Soda tactic #4: Focus on jobs

The “job killer” argument is an attention-grabber in a tough economy with high unemployment. A plea by a mobile food advocacy group claims that if AB1678 passes, the majority of California's food truck “owners and staff – and the dozens of support staff they, in turn, employ – will be out of work.”

The threat of massive job losses has also been employed by the soda industry as a tactic to fight proposed soda taxes. When the Rhode Island state legislature held a hearing on a proposed soda tax last year, industry insiders were all there to testify that the tax would be a job-killer. A woman from the R.I Beverage Association said, “Grocery bills will increase, and jobs will be lost;” a merchandizing manager for Coca Cola and a sales manager for Pepsi also testified that jobs would be lost.

When New York Governor David Patterson proposed a penny per ounce soda tax in 2009, the aforementioned Susan Neely of the American Beverage Association reportedly wailed: “this tax will threaten thousands of well-paying, New York jobs in the beverage and related industries.”

Big Soda tactic #5: Bash statewide efforts as “one-size-fits-all” legislation

The idea that each community, school district, or even school should make its own choice, as opposed to having a “one-size-fits-all” statewide policy, is exactly what the soda industry claimed back in 2005 when California was poised to eliminate soda from all school campuses.

Big Soda knew that with over 1000 school districts in California, and the effort required to get a school board to adopt a no-soda policy, putting the onus back onto the individual districts was the surest way to keep soda in the schools. The argument that a one-size-fits-all mobile vending policy is not needed, and that each locality should pass its own laws, comes directly from the Big Soda playbook.

As California goes, so goes the nation. It’s a pattern easily seen in the craze for local, seasonal and sustainable food started decades ago by Alice Waters and her disciples here in the Bay Area; now every little town from Montana to Maine has a restaurant with a local seasonal menu. It’s true of legislation too, where early adopter school districts like Los Angeles and San Francisco got sodas out of their public schools nearly a decade ago and set the stage for a statewide ban a few years later. In 2006, a report prepared for the California Endowment concluded that

[California's] laws—the toughest in the nation—serve as models for other states and foreign countries. They have ignited a movement that led ten states to ban the sale of junk food and soda in all grades, 22 states to limit the sale of soft drinks at some level, and U.S. Senator Tom Harkin to introduce legislation that would set national nutrition standards for food and drink sold in schools. The spate of legislative proposals and the threat of class-action lawsuits persuaded the American Beverage Association and the nation’s three major soft drink companies, in April of 2006, to agree not to sell soft drinks in public schools throughout the country.

So it’s easy to see why any industry whose products are sold through mobile vendors might feel a little threatened by the idea that California, which has already expelled soda from schools, could enact legislation that would affect yet another point of sale. Roach coaches are huge customers of soft drink distributors, and even some of the smaller gourmet trucks sell old school Coke along with the grass-fed organic burgers.

It could be just coincidence that the arguments against keeping mobile vendors away from schools sound so much like the arguments against reducing soda consumption. But Michele Simon finds the idea plausible. She told me

It’s no coincidence these talking points sound familiar. Among Big Food’s tried and true lobbying tactics is to hide behind the scenes, putting up the independent business owner as the face of the opposition. The strategy here is to garner sympathy and give political cover to lawmakers. Meanwhile, these “local operators” are doing the bidding of Coke, Pepsi, Mars and other powerful multinational corporations with sophisticated public relations and well-paid lobbyists. Big Food couldn’t care less about these truck owners; all they care about is continued profits at the expense of children’s health.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at She supported the passage of San Francisco's existing ordinance keeping food trucks 1500 feet from public middle and high schools during the day. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.