Tuesday, June 24, 2008

How I Almost Ended Up On a Doritos Bag

Let me start off by saying this, which may be obvious, but I feel needs to be said:
There are two sides to every story. You are about to read my side. I may be wrong, but I think that history will vindicate me. And, yes, this story really does relate to my face being printed on a Doritos bag.

The story...

Three years ago, shortly after I had begun working to revive the Alemany Farm, I was told of an opportunity to get money for being a young person doing "good things for my community". My friend Bochay told me about the BR!CK award, a $10,000 grant given by the non-profit DO SOMETHING to youth (under age 25) who could prove measurable results from a project they had created. I applied for my work at Alemany Farm for two years in a row, and was not chosen. Since measurable results were what DO SOMETHING was looking for, this made sense. Most of what resulted from those first two years of the farm was intangible or unmeasured; we were a completely volunteer program that offered a space for city residents to grow food collectively, a childcare of sorts for kids from the Alemany Housing Community, and not much more.

By the third year I applied, however, we had received city funding, hosted workshops, run a youth job training program, and been able to estimate an amount of food grown: over 2,500 lbs. And this year, for the BR!CK award 2008, I was selected as one of 19 finalists. YAY!

Let me explain something about DO SOMETHING: their mission is to "close the inactivity gap" between the large percent of youth who claim they would like to be more involved in their community and the 23% who actually DO do something. They say they want to create a "Do Something Generation", where more than 51% of that generation are active. How do they go about creating this generation?

Well, they've got many strategies, but mostly they're known for giving out grants to youth, both for projects they've already started and for projects they propose to do. What's especially great is that they don't require the youth grantee to be a 501c3 non-profit, and the money goes straight to the grantee (not his/her parents if he/she is under 18).

I am now a two-time Do Something grantee. The first was $500 I was given to spend on the school garden I used to take care of around the corner from my house. The second was supposed to be $2,500, but ended up as $500, and was for In Search of Good Food. That grant was called the Del Monte "Good for You" grant, and was (as you can guess) a co-promotion with the Del Monte Corporation, who obviously ponied up the money to be awarded. I knew this when I applied; in fact, I had contacted the folks at Do Something with my concerns about the fine print of the application prior to applying. I wanted to be sure that, if I were to win, I wouldn't be compromising what I was to say in the film. I also wanted to be sure that none of my work would become property of Do Something or Del Monte. I was assured that neither of these things would happen, and applied.

After being notified that I was a finalist, I had a little over-the-phone interview with Aria, who seemed really cool and supportive of the project and everything else I was doing. She encouraged me to, once again, apply for the BR!CK award. In the meantime, I was given a date by which I would be informed if I won the Good for You grant. That date came and went, and so I assumed that I had not won. But then, a week or so later, I got an obtuse message from a Kevin at Do Something, saying they had "been back and forth on some things" and that they wanted to speak with me. It turned out, Del Monte (how surprising) had wanted "final say" on whatever I came up with in the film. Do Something, being the fine folks that they are, refused, and tried to negotiate with them. In the end, they could not convince Del Monte to drop it, so they had to give me $500 from another grant they had going.


I was flown to New York in March to be interviewed/judged (along with the other 18 finalists) in the Do Something offices on Union Square. It was great to meet the other finalists, like the 12 year old named Pat who sold advertising space on his bald head to fund a cross-country trip to sign up ethnic minorities as marrow donors, or the Canadian named Jer who was made fun of in class by both students AND his teacher for being dark-skinned and gay, and then turned around and sued the school district, using the settlement money to start a diversity-in-school organization.

Our first day was dedicated to a "Non-Profit Boot Camp" that Do Something had organized. All day we listened to speakers on topics like using new technologies to spread your work, branding, expansion, 501c3 basics, and the like. That evening was the gala celebration of the 15th Anniversary of Do Something, so after boot camp, we were given time to steal off to our hotel to put on our Sunday best. Luckily, I have one suit I use for such occasions.

The event was a swank NY affair, with tables costing anywhere from $20-50,000, celebrities (Susan Sarandon! Some Model Whose Name I Forget!), free drinks, and all-organic dinner. Fellow BR!CK finalist Evan got to sit at a table with John Ellis, cousin of G.W. Bush, while I was sat in the back, next to the manager of D.E.Y., the musical talent hired to entertain us. The finalists had been prepped to perform a little group speech, where we introduced ourselves and our projects, and proudly exclaimed "we are the Do Something generation!".

After the introductions came the section of the program where DO SOMETHING honors its partners. In this case they were the Sprint and Lays corporations. Sprint was honored for its new promotion, whereby any cell phone user can text "do something" to the number 30644 and be signed up to receive notices about teen-friendly volunteer opportunities in their area. To me this sounds like a great use of corporate cross-promotion; it doesn't only apply to Sprint users, and it's a real resource for youth wanting to be more active, since it's available where kids are at these days: on their cell phones.

The second honoring was bestowed on Lays for their promotion of the BR!CK winners. You see, I didn't do my homework, and I didn't know that (since the 2007 competition), all finalists for the BR!CK award get their names, faces, and a short description of their project printed on the back of Doritos "Cool Ranch" and "Nacho Cheese" chips. And this isn't a limited print run: it was announced that, this year, 500 million bags would be printed for all the finalists...meaning that I would have my face printed on 25 MILLION bags of chips.

Now I could really be "all that and a bag of chips".


Not having known of this particular aspect of winning a BR!CK award, but knowing that I had signed a contract saying that I would participate in any promotions related to the award, I was quite surprised upon hearing this. I was pretty elated from the general mood of the event, and being somewhat of a "guest of honor", I was buzzed from all the free wine and adulation. Through the evening, the Doritos situation didn't quite sink in. Also at my table was Rajiv, a fellow finalist who started an anti-obesity program in Rhode Island. We were the only finalists whose programs had such obvious conflicts with something like being associated with Doritos. That night, we joked about having our packages say something like "PUT THOSE CHIPS DOWN!" OR "IF YOU LIVE IN A POOR NEIGHBORHOOD, CHANCES ARE THAT THIS IS THE HEALTHIEST THING YOU COULD FIND AT YOUR LOCAL CORNER STORE...".

It was only the next day, after the judging had been done, when we were having our portraits taken uber-professionally, that I started to really think about what it would mean to have my picture on a Doritos bag. Would it mean that I was promoting Doritos? Or would I be promoting the DO SOMETHING organization? Could I choose to not participate? Is this a decision I could even make alone, considering that Alemany Farm (the project I would be representing) involves so many others? I did not take up my issues with the folks at DO SOMETHING, since I figured there was nothing I could do at that point, and after having a conversation with Rajiv, I figured that we were being offered a chance to speak to a huge audience (I've never had 25 million of ANYTHING made relating to me). Leaving New York the next day, I figured that I would probably just go along with it, but I would first have to relate this new information to my co-managers at Alemany Farm to see what they thought.

On our email list, I brought up my quandary; I expressed that I was willing to do it but was having reservations. The responses seconded my reservations, but were generally supportive of my participation in the promotion. After all: if I could have really radical statement, that would make it worthwhile right? There was also still the $10,000 at stake.

The best comment I got was from Alemany Farm co-manager Jason Mark, and it was this: 'Can you use the master's tools to take down the master's house?'. This is the question that this experience brings up for me. How mainstream am I comfortable being? How much can I water down my message to bring it to a wider audience? Am I compromising my future integrity as a food activist if I participate in such a media? Malcolm McLuhan had a very good point with the phrase "the medium is the message", and it's hard for me to image a whole lot of the social change I wish to see coming from the back of a Doritos bag. Yet I could be potentially inspiring many mainstream American youth who I would never otherwise reach to "do something", and maybe that something would be something good and worthwhile?

We were told that the 9 winners would be announced within two weeks. Two weeks went by. I had more conversations with friends and colleagues about the situation, and was starting to find the notion of myself on all those chips as funny. Irony is funny these days, right? Having ridiculous life experiences is funny, right? Maybe I could go along with it, just to be able to send my grand children (or great grandchildren, or great great great great grandchildren) to the dump to find my head shot and message: "Organic Food: it's what's for dinner!" Antonio Roman-Alcalá: organic farming activist FOR ETERNITY.

I went back and forth in my head while continually expecting to hear about whether I won or not. Part of me figured that, if I won, then it would be worth it. But if I didn't...maybe not. But as it got later and later, with DO SOMETHING sending us sporadic notices apologizing for not coming out with the results, I got more and more concerned with this situation. If I were to wait to find out that I lost, and THEN ask to not be on the Doritos bag, I would be (rightly) perceived as a sore loser. And a little fast-and-loose with my supposed scruples. I realized that I had to do something (no pun intended). Shaking from nerves and uncertainty, I wrote them the following email.


Kevin, Jordyn, and Nancy,

First off, I would like to thank you for doing the work that you do. I'm glad you guys are out there, promoting youth and their visions for a better world. Do Something is a needed organization, and you all seem to be doing a great job of running it.

This letter is to let you know that I'd like to bow out of the BR!CK awards, and to request that I not be included in the Doritos promotion. I know that I signed a contract stating that I would promote Do Something and the BR!CK award in whatever way was asked of me, but I cannot in good conscience do this. I recognize that I might be disqualified from receiving the BR!CK award.

My personal belief is that we all must compromise sometimes, and that, to achieve our goals, we sometimes need to do things we wouldn't do otherwise. It's downright hilarious to think I would have my name on 25 million bags of chips, but just not hilarious enough to outweigh my issues with it.

First off, there is an obvious disconnect between my program and the products promoted by Lays. I am a passionate advocate of healthy food and healthy communities. Doritos is a government-subsidized (through the illogical farm bill), heavily advertised, and widely consumed junk food. My association with this product and this corporation do me no good. $10,000 might make it worth it, but at this point, I'm willing to take the chance that it's not.

Many would argue that we must use the mainstream channels that exist to get our message to the masses, and that this Doritos bag would be just that opportunity. But there is another way of looking at it. Lays corporation makes money on a daily basis by selling a product that is bad for the planet (both in its contents and its packaging) and bad for people (especially the poor who often lack healthier choices where they live). Then Lays can quickly and effectively excuse this through philanthropy. By taking 1% of the profits they've turned and feeding it to something righteous (like Do Something and BR!CK winners), Lays buys its papal indulgences for one more year. Not to mention the tax-write-offs associated with the "nonprofit industrial complex". With the promotion of BR!CK award finalists on the backs of their chips bags, Lays is basically saying: "look how cool we are; we're associated with all these rad kids doing cool stuff to benefit the world that we never did or do ourselves!"

In no way am I trying to convince the other BR!CK finalists that they shouldn't take part (besides Rajiv, none of their projects have such an obvious conflict of interest), but I cannot allow myself to be used by Lays for cool points. My cool points are mine, I earned them, by caring about people and maintaining the belief that it MATTERS what you do with your time. I can't just give those points away. If I were to allow my face to be printed on 25 million bags of a product that I wish didn't exist, I would be betraying my values AND tacitly approving Lays' continued profit-making off of peoples' bad diets. And I would be enabling a lot of people (you three, millions of consumers, and overly-paid Lays execs) to think that what is going on is okay because, hey, people like me were given a chance to get an edited version of what we believe out to an audience of 25 million chip-munchers.

So at this point, I must say "thanks but no thanks".



At what point does radical become "radicaler than thou"? At what point is it good to compromise certain values for a larger goal? I found this experience reflected in a book I recently finished, "Organic, Inc", by Samuel Fromartz. Fromartz, through a book that is consistently balanced and business-like, discusses the rise of the organic foods industry from a hippie-bred communalist back-to-nature social movement, to an increasingly corporatized food production, distribution, and retailing system. Interviewing many players in the movement/industry/scene, Fromartz defines a sort of crossroads for organic foods. Down one path would go the purists, who (for example) see allowing chemical inputs deemed 'organic' on farms as sacrilege, and who think "industrial organic agriculture" is an oxymoron since real organic means small scale; down the other goes the Earthbound Farms of the world, eager to expand acreage and market share in an earnest attempt to 'democratize' organic and reduce use of the nasty pesticides and fertilizers in a big way.

Fromartz doesn't try to make the call of which road is the right one, but I will say that most intelligent people find their way out of this maze by saying that both are correct. Pluralism in social movements makes sense. We need small independent farmers doing direct marketing and maintaining close ties to their customers, as well as large input-replacing close-to-monoculture farms using economies of scale to crank out lots of produce to support the large populations we have. Ultimately, they both help to bring us closer to the world we'd like to see.

By analogy, we need the Michael Pollans of the world, churning out propaganda that the "masses" will read, and taking opportunities of the Doritos type to reach any and everybody. Equally, I would argue, we need grassroots activists on the ground, never compromising their ideals or tactics to maintain a radical push on that mainstream voice that does get through. My decision to back out of the Doritos deal helped me re-define (not in the sense of changing but of going back; to re-realize) my desired place in the world of food and social justice activism. That place is not as sexy spokesmodel for the do-something-organic-snack-chips-brand-generation; it is as an authentic and constantly questioning activist: doing good, fun, and socially beneficial things on a local level, and inviting people to find joy in working for sustainability and social justice through example and, hopefully, through media that I create and have control over...like In Search of Good Food.

Historically, large societal changes have been made through the mainstream's adoption of non-mainstream perspectives. Example: our federal two party system consistently fails to represent many peoples' values and political beliefs, and it's been this way over the 200 years of its existence. When neither of the two parties would seriously discuss ending slavery, it took the third party-based abolitionist movement to get the issue to be dealt with. Al Gore became slightly more liberal when Ralph Nader came on the scene. Likewise, when we talk about increasing corporate control of food (the dominant mainstream agenda), we need to acknowledge that organic food is not out of that equation. And when we see the corporatization of organics, yes, we can appreciate the effort to make it more mainstream and accessible. But we should also still push for better organic production from these companies. We need dedication to purism from at least someone along the line, to insure that capitalism's inexorable push to compromise values for efficiency and profit (which forces farms to "get big or get out") will be challenged.

I'm for the 'democratization' of organic as much as the next guy, but if it means cutting wages and safety for farm workers, or producing a product that's not as healthy (like milk from grain-fed cows, whether the grain is organic or not), or shipping in 'organic' inputs from across the country to support an over-sized operation, then what's the point? It's as if, once again, we support a two-tiered eating system: those who can afford the best of the best (the most local, the small scale) get to eat the best, and those who can't get something less. Even if I can stand behind corporate organics for what they DO do, I feel resolute that I must question what they don't do right. And I will always push for the best case scenario, where everyone is eating the best foods, good food.

And so, when my opportunity comes along to put my face on 10,000 recycled and compostable bags of locally grown and processed organic hemp seed and rice cakes, I will consider it. Until then, I will be mildly regretting missing my chance at eternal fame and/or notoriety from the comfort of my purist world.

1 comment:

Ally said...

Well said! I totally have this debate in my head every time I think about the future of food in America. It's great to hear your p.o.v. on it...stick to those guns!