Should Chicago turn to Coca-Cola for city health and sustainability programs?

August 27, 2013

WBEZ/Monica Eng
Kids at a Coca-Cola sponsored event.

Last Saturday morning, visitors to the South Side's Washington Park found more than an acre of its lush greenery candy striped in red and white.

The decorations were Coca-Cola logos, dozen and dozens of them, used to brand a Chicago Park District event called Coca-Cola Family Field Day.

There, scores of registering families were treated to non-stop music, free Coke products and several Coca-Cola themed games. One involved rolling around in a giant ball, another featured a tricycle race and yet another asked families to dress up in Coke can costumes and dance the can can.

Fresh out of a hot Coke can suit, Chicagoan Ted Johnson caught his breath and said, "I didn't think it was going to be that active but after a minute and 30 seconds you feel it in your hips."

Did he mind dancing around dressed as soda can on a hot summer day?

"It got warm," he said. "I felt like I was somebody in an actual can because I could feel myself starting to sweat."

Held just before school started, this public private partnership offered lessons promoting wellness, sustainability and physical fitness.  But some would argue that it mainly promoted Coke. And it wasn't a first.

Over the last year, the City of Chicago has entered into multiple partnerships with soda companies—most prominently Coca-Cola—to fund various municipal health and sustainability programs.

It started last October with a $5 million beverage industry funded health challenge pitting Chicago city employees against those in San Antonio. The next was a $3 million grant to support the Chicago Park District Families Wellness Initiative through fitness camps taught by veterans. Then last spring, Coca-Cola—whose board includes former Mayor Richard M. Daley—gave the city an additional $2.59 million to buy 50,000 recycling bins (bins that would bear the soda company's logo).

These sponsorships trouble some public health watchdog groups—including Eat Drink Politics and the Center for Science in the Public Interest—who believe the companies are trying to create a healthy glow around their products (which have been associated with obesity) and co-opt city officials who might otherwise pass the kind of anti-soda rules that have emerged in Boston and New York.

Public health lawyer Michele Simon of San Francisco's Eat Drink Politics calls the sponsorships tools to "buy silence" and make people believe "you can drink all the Coke you want and all you have to do is exercise it off."

The city and soda companies, however, say these partnerships benefit the city while offering citizens choices.

In a statement to WBEZ, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office said that the city's partnerships with Coke "support community investment and opportunities for our residents. From our blue cart recycling program expansion, the $5 million wellness challenge and healthy vending, to creating jobs for returning veterans, these resources provide lasting benefits to our neighborhoods. Our public health agenda remains focused on an ambitious sense of purpose for Chicago to transform the overall health of our City, while at the same time promoting individual responsibility and healthy choices."

Still, critics ask why a soda tax was quashed in Emanuel's City Council, why full calorie sodas remain in the city's new soda machines (unlike those in Boston) and why Emanuel has not followed New York's lead in restricting soda sizes.

Does it have anything to do with generous gifts from soda companies? We will ask these questions and more as we discuss the topic on Tuesday's Morning Shift on WBEZ.