Earlier this year, Newark Mayor Cory Booker excitedly announced the launch of a new partnership between Let’s Move! Newark and Nestlé to address the obesity problem facing the children of Newark.
“This is an amazing day in the city of Newark!” Booker exclaimed. Amazing, indeed. It’s amazing that Newark is partnering with a giant candy bar and infant formula corporation to conquer health problems that the company itself plays a role in perpetuating. A press release announced that Nestlé had helped to devise a nutritional education curriculum for Newark families highlighting “the importance of breastfeeding, increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, healthy snacking, dealing with a fussy eater, portion control and physical activity.” The program draws on “the nutritional expertise of Gerber,” Nestlé’s infant formula brand.
But why would a company that depends for its profits on women not breastfeeding and families purchasing candy (not fruits and vegetables) be an ideal source of nutritional expertise?
Nestlé’s interest in this initiative is obvious. Promoting breastfeeding – which decreases the risk of obesity – and healthy eating does not bolster the company’s bottom line. Rather, it’s the image of Booker joyfully making his announcement in front of prominently displayed logos for Nestlé and Gerber that likely makes Nestlé executives see dollar signs. Where else will Nestlé’s logos appear in the Newark program? How will Nestlé’s interests shape the nutrition advice it gives families in Newark? Whatever else this may be, it is surely a marketing ploy.
Nestlé, the largest infant formula maker in the world and a massive producer of a host of junk foods, is investing just $100,000 in the city of Newark – a trivial sum for the huge company. As it generates brand awareness and good will from the public through this initiative, the company will reap far more than $100,000 worth of benefits from this investment – and the children and families of Newark may pay the price. Meanwhile, the public will be less likely to pay attention as a company with a troubling history of underhanded marketing tactics continues its relentless pursuit of profits.
Nestlé recently announced a similar partnership with Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to combat childhood obesity in the state. As in Newark, Snyder’s partnership with Nestle, called “Pure Michigan FIT,” touts the company’s expertise as a valuable tool for educating Michigan families about the benefits of breastfeeding and healthy eating.
Booker spoke passionately to Nestlé’s executives: “What you all are doing is planting a seed, I think, that is going to bear fruit not just for Newark, but for the United States of America, and for all North America.”
It’s exactly this “seed” that we should be worried about. Though Nestlé’s new approach to marketing its products through such “educational initiatives” has raised some eyebrows, it has mostly passed under the radar. How long will it be before we see such partnerships popping up in communities across the country?
Along with other major infant formula manufacturers, Nestlé already undermines breastfeeding by marketing its products in health care facilities, right after new moms give birth. Should we believe that a company that hands out infant formula sample packs in obstetrics wards will promote breastfeeding in our communities?
Booker gushed, “I’m telling you, I am blown away by Nestlé as a corporation. They’re not a company just about the bottom line. They’re a company that believes that they can do well by doing good. In fact, that the better they do for others the better they do as a community. That actually is an American ideal.”
While Nestlé rides the coat tails of the Mayor’s popularity in Newark and around the country, Booker’s apparent naiveté about Nestlé’s motives threatens to bolster a disturbing trend that could undermine efforts to create a healthier environment for kids to grow up in, from birth on up.
Mayor Booker shouldn’t be “the proudest mayor in America,” as he declared at the press conference – at least as far as this statement relates to his partnership with Nestlé. To serve Newark’s families and American families, he should end this destructive partnership.
Elizabeth Ben-Ishai is a senior researcher at Public Citizen and the campaign coordinator for Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert. Follow her at @CommercialAlert.