The fight to end CUNY’s 10-year $21 million Pouring Rights Contract (PRCs) with Pepsi Co. is not just a local fight for a healthier and sustainable campus lifestyle. It is fought across the country among various campuses such as the University of California Davis (UC Davis) and is led by students and supported by their faculty and staff.
Join us in this exclusive interview with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)’s Policy Fellow, Catherine Cochran, and the project lead for Associated Students of the University of California Davis (ASUCD) Environmental Policy and Planning Commission (EPPC), Daphne Crother, on how they are working to end PRCs.
Missions and Values
XIN YAN ZHU JIANG (XJ): HOW DO UNIVERSITY EXCLUSIVE CONTRACTS, SUCH AS POURING RIGHTS, FIT INTO CSPI’S LARGER VISION FOR AN EQUITABLE FOOD SYSTEM?
CATHERINE COCHRAN (CC): CSPI envisions an equitable food system that makes healthy, sustainable food accessible to all. Some of our work to achieve this vision includes advocating for healthy, values-based food procurement policies in public facilities that support limiting the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Sugar-sweetened beverages are the leading source of added sugars in the U.S. diet, and consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the world. In fact, campuses with PRCs limit the food and beverage options available to students, faculty, and staff, while promoting unhealthy options, such as soda and other sugary drinks in single-use plastic bottles. Additionally, promoting transparency for consumers is a priority for CSPI. In the case of PRCs, we tend to find that most of the campus community is unaware of their university’s contract. It’s quite difficult to get information from universities as, in most cases, they will not give it to you willingly. So, you have to submit a public records request, and in our experience, it can take months to receive any requested documents. It is important to CSPI that students, faculty, and staff have a say in which companies their university contracts with. After all, universities should be serving their campus communities.
XJ: WHAT RESPONSIBILITY DO UNIVERSITIES HAVE IN SHAPING THE CAMPUS FOOD AND BEVERAGE ENVIRONMENT FOR STUDENTS, STAFF, AND FACULTY? WHAT ROLE DO POURING RIGHT CONTRACTS PLAY IN RELATION TO THIS?
CC: CSPI currently focuses on public universities because they act as anchor institutions within their community. Given that they are publicly funded, public universities have a duty to serve the public good and not act in ways that are harmful to campus and community health, such as by partnering with corporations like The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, which are leading global plastic polluters and sugar-sweetened beverage producers. With that, as I mentioned before, PRCs inhibit transparency and student autonomy because students are often left out of discussions about university-beverage partnerships. Something else I haven’t mentioned yet is that CSPI’s advocacy on PRCs came out of research that was conducted by a couple of my colleagues in conjunction with researchers from John Hopkins University. This group of researchers submitted public records requests to the largest public universities across the U.S. and obtained about 130 PRCs. It was through analyzing those contracts that we really gathered the information that has come to build the foundation of our advocacy. One of the most upsetting things we learned from this research is that The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo incentivize universities to sell unhealthy and unsustainable products by offering commissions and rebates on products sold. Some contracts even provided higher commission revenue for soft drinks than water. So, universities are partnering with Pepsi and/ or Coke at the expense of their own campus communities’ health. Something else that is notable is that the amount of revenue universities receive from a PRC tends to be a minuscule amount in comparison to total university revenue.
DAPHNE CROTHER (DC): So, going off the point Catherine made, the PRC for PepsiCo with UC Davis is $10 million over 10 years and that is only 0.015% of all our annual revenue. The money that we (UC Davis) get from the PRC is such a small amount in comparison to the revenue UC Davis gets from donations and federal funding that is not worth going against campus sustainability guidelines, or as Daphne puts it “it does not justify the degradation that is happening to universities’ own sustainability and health goals and policies”.
XJ: HOW DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED IN YOUR CAMPUS’ CAMPAIGN AGAINST PRCS? WHAT ABOUT PRCS SPARKED OR TRIGGERED YOUR INTEREST ENOUGH TO MOTIVATE YOU TO TAKE ACTION
DC: As part of UC Davis’ Environmental Policy Planning Commission, we first learned about the PRC with PepsiCo and its subsequent expiration next June 2024 around March 2023 because of Professor Jennifer Pavlay. Her work focuses on food policy in relation to sugary food and beverage products and wanted to better engage with the larger student community. We were really interested in the PRC with PepsiCo as it does not follow UC Davis’ sustainability guidelines or our health guidelines. In fact, through our research on the topic, what further sparked our interest was when we learned about the other UC schools that were also working against PRC, specifically Berkeley with their Pour Out Pepsi organization. This was a popular organization in Berkeley that worked on the ending of PRCs and have their own website, Instagram, and central resolution articles. We were thinking that with UC Davis being one of the most sustainable schools in North America, this aligns with our goals and our commission has been working on it ever since as part of our larger projects.
XJ: WHAT STEPS HAVE YOU AND OTHER STUDENTS TAKEN TO END YOUR CAMPUS’ PRC? WHAT HAS THE RESPONSE BEEN FROM OTHER STUDENTS, STAFF, FACULTY, AND THE ADMINISTRATION?
DC: Since our initial knowledge of the PRC in March, the commission has done a lot to raise awareness. We have, started a petition online, created a senate resolution bill through our student government – ASUCD, and worked with student government senators and our entire environmental commission. Through this, we were able to create a rally on campus protesting against PRC and have since been working in partnership with other UC schools and CSPI through Catherine. This is through monthly Zoom meetings to see what other UCs are doing and what has and has not been working. The response from other students has been positive and, as Catherine says, a very large issue is transparency. Most students don’t know about PepsiCo having an almost exclusive 90% contract with UC Davis. The transparency is a large factor in why we are interested in working to end the PRC at Davis and the positivity we get from students and faculty in support of ending the PRC. A large majority of the PRC revenue goes to athletics so that has been an area I have not really had interaction with, especially in the department of athletics.
XJ: WHY ARE SOME STUDENTS, STAFF, AND FACULTY OPPOSED TO AN EXCLUSIVE CONTRACT WITH A LARGE CORPORATION LIKE PEPSICO OR COCOACOLA? WHY ARE SOME IN SUPPORT OF PRCS WITH THESE CORPORATIONS?
CC: There are many different reasons folks are interested in advocating against PRCs. There is the issue of public health, as many of these companies’ offerings are high in added sugars. There’s also the sustainability element considering that PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Company are leading plastic polluters. It’s notable that these PRCs exist simultaneously with universities’ own sustainability goals and policies. They are completely at odds, so it’s hypocritical when you actually look at the fact that universities are partnering with PepsiCo while working to decrease carbon emissions and reduce plastic waste. That is a big reason why, once you get the information out to students, faculty, and staff, they are against these beverage contacts. Another reason we discussed today is the issue of transparency and student autonomy. Again, these are public universities that are funded by public dollars. They should be serving the public good. These universities should be serving their communities, their students, and faculty, and fostering an environment that enriches education; which is what these universities are meant for. So if that’s the case, why are they selling and promoting unsustainable, sugar-sweetened beverages?
DC: There is a board at UC Davis called the Prefered Partnership Program (UP3) and it includes the Director of Sustainability, Director of Athletics, and Director of Student Dining who work on partnership deals at UCD and they oversee the PepsiCo deal. I know some members like the directors of sustainability want to see the PRC with PepsiCo end as it goes against UC Davis’ sustainability guidelines and some, like the Director of athletics, want the PRC renewed. As mentioned before, the faculty that we are getting push-back from are the people that are benefiting from PRC money and a large portion of money goes to student athletics. I think UC Davis likes the idea of the partnership with PepsiCo because we get funding from them and get to have their name on campus.
CC: Student advocacy efforts are directed at decision-makers, such as university chancellors. From that level, the chancellor is concerned about losing revenue from the contract, even though it’s such a small amount. With that, continuing to partner with Coca-Cola or PepsiCo is often the simplest option. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola can come in and say “We will give you this cash investment and also we are gonna give you vending machines, athletic equipment, and marketing materials.” So they offer a huge package that most other beverage companies can’t compete with. However, university administrators should be asking themselves whether the revenue from a PRC is worth compromising community health, planetary health, student autonomy, and social justice.
DC: One more point is that when I was working with Jennifer Falbe, a Professor of Human Development, and in our monthly meetings with CSPI, one difficulty of replacing the PRC with another option in filling the volume quota on what other companies would have the same amount of product to supply on campus. We are currently researching other sustainable companies and it does seem doable as other campuses have done it.
XJ: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU’VE EXPERIENCED WORKING WITH DIFFERENT CAMPUSES IN THEIR FIGHT TO END THEIR UNIVERSITIES’ EXCLUSIVE POURING RIGHTS CONTRACT? WHAT ARE SOME WINS OR LESSONS LEARNED?
DC: The biggest challenge we had and are still working on has been transparency and information. As mentioned earlier, UC Davis’ PRC is public knowledge but it is not well known among students and faculty. In fact, learning more about the PRC such as what goes through quoting and how it works through our UC system has been extremely challenging. There are many steps and have been some pushback from faculty. With Berkeley finalizing the renewal of their 10-year contract, UC Davis has been watching their process closely, but we have not been able to learn any information in the last couple of months It’s difficult to see what that would mean for us, but we hope to learn from Berkley and prevent UC Davis’ contract renewal. Overall, our proudest moments have been and still are the momentum of the students’ interest. Once they became aware of the PRC, so many students made commentaries, signed petitions, showed up at our rallies, and asked questions about it. In fact, the student government and staff were very excited and supported us when we wrote a student government senate bill against the PRC with PepsiCo.
CC: I think Daphne has already highlighted this, but the issue of transparency is a challenge that I come back to the most. What we saw at Berkeley, and what we see happening at Davis, is the university forming a beverage working group with one representative from undergraduate students, a few faculty representatives, athletics representatives, etc. This group is tasked with brainstorming ideas for the university’s beverage environment, however, these representatives are eventually asked to sign NDAs, meaning they can not discuss the deliberations of the contract outside of their group. Further, the decision about the university’s beverage contract is ultimately out of their hands. This has made it very difficult for students advocating against PRCs to know what exactly they are advocating for, and what their points of intervention are. This ties into some of the lessons we have learned- that it’s imperative to collect as much information as you can and to advocate for student and faculty voices to be included at the table where these discussions are taking place. The communities impacted by university-beverage partnerships should have a say in what those partnerships are.
We [CSPI] are facing this at CUNY right now. A Freedom of Information Law request was made to CUNY back in December 2022 to obtain more information about the extension of PRC, and we have been pushed off ever since. We have reached a point where we have received no information after following up. This lack of transparency is such a major issue across the board, especially considering that students are paying to attend public universities that should be serving them. At the very least, this information should be made available to them.
We have seen a lot of advocacy come out of campuses where we work within the form of rallies attended by 30+ students, marches, and petitions. As Daphne has said, a major issue with PRCs is that a lot of people don’t know about them, so we are really trying to raise awareness.
XJ: WHAT CAN CUNY AND OTHER CAMPUSES LEARN FROM UC DAVIS’ CAMPAIGN? WHAT WORDS OF ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO OTHER STUDENTS, CUNY AND BEYOND, WHO MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN TRANSFORMING THEIR UNIVERSITY’S CAMPUS FOOD AND BEVERAGE ENVIRONMENTS?
DC: My word of advice for other students is to build a network and create an organization. From what I have seen from UC Davis and Berkley is that it largely begins with the Student government so as long as there is a group of passionate students/student government interested in working collaboratively together towards a larger common goal, it is possible to end PRCs. There is help out there students can get such as non-profit organizations and working in tandem with other schools who have already been through/in the process of ending PRCs. Working against PRC at a very large institution is a very difficult process as you’re fighting against contracts that have been set for a long time with large amounts of money at play. As such, I suggest following UC Davis’ tagline: “Outgrow the expected”. And that is exactly what we are trying to do against the PRC: trying to break against the mold of UC Davis by not following in the footsteps of signing these PRCs and getting money from sustainable partnerships or federal funding.
CC: One other thing I would like to add is that for students looking to get involved at public universities, you should try to get as much information as possible by submitting a public records request. By obtaining your campus beverage contract, you can find out the actual parameters of the PRC, what you are advocating for, and the time restraint that you’re working with. There are many resources available to students interested in advocating against PRCs, including CSPI’s toolkit. With that, we’re happy to connect with any student advocates who would like help submitting a public records request.
XJ: HOW DOES CSPI PLAN TO LEVERAGE THE RISING INTEREST OF STUDENTS ACROSS THE COUNTRY WHO WANT TO TRANSFORM THEIR COMPUSES AND IMPROVE THE FOOD AND BEVERAGES AVAILABLE?
CC: CSPI is actively building a coalition of student and faculty advocates as well as other organizations that are interested in ending PRCs or improving upon their campus beverage environments. One of the ways we plan to leverage the rising interest of students is by raising more awareness through events, webinars, meetings, etc. We know there is interest at different universities across the country, and we certainly welcome any student advocates to reach out if they would like to support ending or amending their university’s PRC.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEES:
Catherine Cochran is a Policy Fellow at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She supports CSPI’s work to create healthier food environments in public places and institutions by coordinating advocacy efforts to strengthen the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and end and amend university pouring rights contracts. Prior to joining CSPI, Catherine served as a Food Policy Program Assistant for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and as a Food Systems Intern for Community Health Improvement Partners in San Diego, California. Catherine works remotely from New York, New York.
Daphne Crother is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Davis studying political science – public service with a track in environmental policy and a minor in history. She is the vice chair for Associated Students of the University of California Davis (ASUCD) Environmental Policy and Planning Commission (EPPC). She is the project lead for EPPC’s commitment to ending UCD’s pouring rights contract with PepsiCo.