Students call for end to Hopkins-PepsiCo contract

By RUDY MALCOM | April 11, 2019

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The PepsiCo contract ensures that 80 percent of beverages at Hopkins are made by Pepsi.

Real Food Hopkins, a student organization promoting food justice and sustainability, launched the Pour Out Pepsi campaign on March 11. According to Real Food Co-Presidents Katie Smith and Grace Windheim, PepsiCo has a history of violating human rights, labor laws and sustainability regulations. The group aims to convince Hopkins Dining to end the exclusivity contract with PepsiCo. This contract requires that 80 percent of all beverages sold on campus — not just soft drinks — are manufactured by PepsiCo. 

Smith referred to a report from April 2017, which found that PepsiCo knowingly imports palm oil from ecologically destructive plantations in Indonesia. Underpaid children, as young as 13, harvest oil in these plantations. In May 2016, the International Union of Food workers accused PepsiCo of repeatedly blocking West Bengali factory workers from forming a trade union. 

Smith argued that although PepsiCo has announced specific sustainability goals, it is difficult to monitor the company’s environmental impact because it is a multinational corporation. Similarly, she felt that PepsiCo representatives who met with Real Food and Hopkins Dining failed to address the severity of the company’s environmental impact.

“[The representatives] try to focus on things like their sustainability initiatives to cut down the amount of plastic, but they don’t necessarily address the issues within their supply chain,” Smith said.

When she and Windheim learned that the exclusivity contract, which began in July 2012, was up for renewal in June, they started a Facebook page and put up posters and stickers around campus advertising Pour Out Pepsi. 

Junior Reah Vasilakopoulos shared her reaction to Pour Out Pepsi in an email to The News-Letter.

“The longer I’ve been at Hopkins, the more questionable their contracts seem to get,” she wrote. “I was disappointed, but not surprised, when I found out about Pepsi’s violations of decent labor practices and Hopkins’ unwillingness to offer living wages and good benefits to the service workers on our campus.” 

Co-President Lana Weidgenant of Compassion, Awareness, and Responsible Eating also criticized Hopkins Dining’s relationship with PepsiCo.

“I believe universities should not be making exclusive contracts with big soda companies,” she said. “I strongly feel that it is not moral or ethical to knowingly harm the health of any community in order to take money from powerful corporations or industries.”

Senior Manager of Dining Programs Ian Magowan discussed the perks of Hopkins Dining’s contract with PepsiCo in an email to The News-Letter.

“The agreement allows us to provide free beverages to student groups, beverages for student athletes and teams and also allows us a permitted exception rate of 20% (among the highest in the university market), which allows us to carry a number of non-Pepsi products where we focus on promoting local based beverage companies,” he wrote. “In the short term, we do not have the infrastructure in place to support a full beverage program without leveraging a contracted partner who is able to support the required scope of work.”

According to Smith, financial officers told her that other vendors aren’t competitive with PepsiCo. 

Smith also explained that, in accordance with the contract, PepsiCo has donated $2 million to the University over the past seven years in exchange for their exclusivity rights.

“They call it a donation; I would call it a bribe,” Smith said.

Windheim stated that PepsiCo donates tens of thousands of dollars to Athletics every year. 

Associate Athletic Director Ernie Larossa commented on this arrangement in an email to The News-Letter

“The Department of Athletics and Recreation’s partnership with Pepsi is a small part of the much larger university-wide agreement. The partnership has afforded an opportunity for us to provide significant programming support for thousands of Johns Hopkins students through intramurals, club sports and athletics,” he wrote. 

Smith noted the PepsiCo Foundation donated $1 million to the construction of the Ralph S. O’Connor Recreation Center in 1996. The press release attributed the gift to alumnus Allan Huston’s desire, as a former lacrosse and basketball player, to enhance recreational opportunities for students. At the time, Huston served on the Whiting School of Engineering’s National Advisory Council and was Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo Restaurant Services Group.

Smith shared her thoughts on PepsiCo’s donations to athletics.

“It’s ironic that athletics are funded by a soda company — not the pinnacle of health,” she said.

Windheim agreed, stressing that Hopkins shouldn’t have exclusivity rights with a corporation that sells sugar-sweetened beverages.

“As a leading public health, research and medicine institution, it doesn’t make sense that we have these exclusivity rights with a soda company,” she said. “In fact, a lot of the research done at the Bloomberg School of Public Health is trying to oppose that whole industry. Even Bloomberg himself had that soda tax in New York City.”

Freshman Orlando Espinoza echoed Windheim’s sentiments.

“I thought Hopkins would have taken the Hippocratic Oath, not this hypocritical oath,” he said. “They fund all this research for public and global health, yet also fund this company that’s so detrimental to health.”

According to Smith, Hopkins should buy beverages from local companies that are sustainable and better reflect the University’s values. She cited Thread Coffee and Taharka Brothers Ice Cream as examples of the University’s successful investments in local businesses. 

She admitted, however, that immediately ending the exclusivity contract might be unrealistic. As a compromise, Real Food crafted a list of demands to Hopkins Dining. Windheim would encourage the University to remove single-use water bottles from its cafes and vending machines, a goal that she said Take Back the Tap at JHU also shares. 

Junior Pavan Patel commended this initiative.

“The programs at Brown University and Washington University in St. Louis which have implemented bans on the sale of single-use water bottles have been very successful,” he said.

Windheim also advocated for the duration of the contract to be shortened, and for the percentage of beverages sold at Hopkins manufactured by Pepsi to be lowered from 80 to 60. 

However, sophomore Jared Dallas said he didn’t understand why Real Food was paying such attention to Hopkins Dining’s exclusivity contract with PepsiCo. 

“Personally, I only drink seltzer, so I don’t really see why there’s so much of a hullabaloo about this,” he said. “I understand that child labor abuses are terrible, but honestly I don’t think we should have soda on this campus in general; it’s terrible for you.”

Windheim explained, however, that Pepsi isn’t PepsiCo’s only drink. Gatorade, Tropicana and Starbucks Bottled Frappuccino chilled coffee drinks are also PepsiCo beverages. She added that, because of stealth marketing, many don’t know that Lay’s, Quaker Oats and Sabra are also PepsiCo products

Real Food plans to table at the Breezeway on April 16 to spread information about the Pour out Pepsi movement. As of press time, the petition has collected 160 out of 200 desired signatures. 

Lecturer Susan Conley, who teaches Principles of Marketing, predicts that the prices of beverages on campus might increase if the campaign is successful and the University moves away from a sole vendor.

“If you try to diversify the drink offerings on campus, it could mean that they’d be more expensive because you lose the scale efficiencies from having just one supplier,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Regardless of the support Pour Out Pepsi is able to amass, senior Charlie Linton worries that Real Food won’t be able to accomplish its goals given the University’s response to other student initiatives. 

“I agree with Real Food’s objectives and that a pouring rights contract with large beverage companies is troubling, but I think the probability of Hopkins responding to organizing around this is low,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “They have so many economic incentives not to and a terrible track record of listening to student activism.”

On the other hand, Windheim, though originally skeptical, believes that student voices wield the capacity to help end the contract.

“Going into this, I thought, ‘Yeah, we could talk about it, but I’m not sure if anything’s going to get done.’ But the more I look into it, the more I realize that’s the image that Pepsi and institutions generally try to give off,” she said. “Believing in student power is something we hope that people gain from this.”

The News-Letter reached out to several PepsiCo representatives. On behalf of herself and PepsiCo sales manager Chandan Nag, PepsiCo Key Account Account Manager Lauren McCadden declined to comment. On behalf of Johns Hopkins HealthCare LLC and Johns Hopkins Medicine, Patricia Brown, who is president of the former and senior vice president of Managed Care and Population at the latter, declined to comment.

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