Lay's Mobile GreenhouseLay’s new traveling greenhouse, coming soon to a city near you.

What comes to mind when you bite into a Lay’s® potato chip? Do you think: Mmmm, crunchycrispysaltyfatty junkfood goodness — I wonder how many calories are in these? I really should put this bag down now.

Or do you think: Wow, just three ingredients! And the potatoes were grown by a fourth-generation family farmer near me. 

Frito-Lay, the $13 billion business unit of PepsiCo, is spending millions to try and drive home the latter message, and I haven’t the faintest clue why.

A few days ago, the corporation announced in a press release that it was “Bringing the Simple Happiness of Farm Life to Big Cities Across America” with a mobile greenhouse exhibit:

Visitors to the “Lay’s Mobile Farm,” a 70-foot long, 10-foot wide and 14-foot high traveling greenhouse will have an opportunity to interact first-hand with plants, meet a Lay’s potato farmer and enjoy interactive stations. Families will also receive take-home educational materials that provide simple tips and fun activities to inspire at-home gardening.  

To help get more gardens growing, the Lay’s brand will give away approximately 8,000 individual basil plants to people who participate in the farm experience. And, at the culmination of each city stop, the brand will donate all contents of the greenhouse to local community gardens, resulting in the planting of hundreds of vegetables and fruits in these urban areas.

I don’t know about you, but I can definitely use some more simple happiness in my busy urban existence.

Now, Lay’s must be getting its money worth from the four PR/advertising firms it’s hired to drive this and last year’s campaign, which connected the potatoes in the chips to seven American farmers whose families have grown for the company since 1974. Although Grist’s Tom Philpott wrote last year that “Ultimately, I suspect such promotions will fade away … Marketing schemes that fail to fool quickly skulk into obscurity,” these localwashing campaigns must be getting some traction, or else Frito-Lay wouldn’t keep pumping big bucks into them.

They’re hitting all the right notes to get the food movement singing along: supporting local farmers, eating foods made from recognizable ingredients (Michael Pollan’s grandmother would certainly recognize a potato chip), promoting “know your farmer” through a “chip tracker” feature, and now, encouraging people to grow some of their own food by giving away basil plants and supporting community gardens.

Potato farmer on websitePhoto: Frito-LayAnd apparently there really are farmers whose families have been proudly growing potatoes for Lay’s for generations. Five of them will be making appearances on the mobile greenhouse tour, and Frito-Lay’s website touts Gregg Halverson of Black Gold Potato in North Dakota on its From Farm to Store page.

So what’s my problem? Why isn’t a dedicated locavore and ethicurean like me busting open a bag of Lay’s and diving in?

Maybe it’s because there’s just something discordant about a billion-dollar processed-food manufacturer trumpeting its farmy-ness. Halverson, for example, is identified as the CEO of Black Gold Potato, which according to its website is “a global production, sales and service operation, specializing in potatoes” that covers 17,000 acres in 11 states. It’s about as much a “farm” as Godzilla is a lizard, and he looks about as natural standing in that monocropped field of potato flowers in the photo (left) as one of my dirty-overalled Northern California farmer friends would in a suit and tie in a boardroom.

Or maybe it’s because this is just not the point of potato chips. Seriously — who are they trying to appeal to with this stuff? Are the people plugging their quarters in the vending machine, or tossing that bag in their Safeway cart before the big game, really thinking: Ooh! I get to support my local farmers and get a salty fatty high made from just three ingredients!

Maybe the answer is that Frito-Lay, like McDonald’s and others, simply has so much cash that they can waste it on pointless feel-good farmwashing campaigns like these.