UPDATED VERSION, 2:20 p.m.
By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Wash this political trip down with a little irony.
When first lady Michelle Obama pays a call on Watertown on Thursday afternoon to urge Americans to choose water over soda, she’ll be making her latest health pitch in a southern Wisconsin community that earns its living, at least in part, on the sweat of soda bottlers.
The corporate office of Wis-Pak Inc., a manufacturer and distributor of Pepsi-Cola and other leading soft drinks, is located in Watertown. Wis-Pak, with production facilities and warehouses throughout the central U.S., is the community’s 10th largest employer, according to the Watertown Area Chamber of Commerce.
Watertown also is home to the 7-Up Bottling Co., a family-owned business that for 75 years has provided full-service beverage distribution and supplied equipment to businesses in Dodge, Jefferson, Waukesha and Rock counties.
Susan Dascenzo, executive director of the Watertown Area Chamber of Commerce, could not provide employment figures of the two soda distributors.
Officials from the companies did not return phone calls Monday afternoon from Wisconsin Reporter. But a local Republican brought up the interesting political-business juxtaposition not long after the first lady’s office announced plans to unveil her new health effort at the Watertown High School.
The resident shook his head, wondering why Michelle Obama would want to visit a community where her husband was soundly beaten – twice – and pontificate on the evils of soda to the children of parents who pay their water bills bottling soda.
Dascenzo didn’t want to speak the issue of the first lady’s visit in a soda pop town like Watertown. She did say Wis-Pak and 7-Up, both long-time chamber members, are “pillars in our community.”
“I think that both companies will continue to adapt to the changing marketplace,” she said, noting that both manufacturers distribute water products. “I think that both 7-Up and Wis-Pak are listening to consumers and following the trends.”
The sugary beverage sector has been hard hit in health-conscious times amid a national battle against obesity. Leading that charge has been Michelle Obama and her Let’s Move! campaign, an initiative to drive down epidemic childhood obesity rates. Along the way, fast-food, cookie makers and sugary soda bottlers have become Public Enemy No. 1 in the anti-obesity effort.
Soda sales declined 0.6 percent last year through Dec. 30 to $28.7 billion at U.S. stores tracked by SymphonyIRI Group, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. In volume terms, sales dropped 1.8 percent.
“While Coke, Pepsi, and Dr Pepper Snapple have all aggressively expanded their portfolios to include faster-growing products like sports drinks and fruit juices, a prolonged drop in U.S. soda revenues would represent a serious blow. Soda represents nearly 25 percent of the U.S. beverage market. Its massive scale has also guaranteed profit margins for decades,” the Journal reported.
The first lady will be joined by, among others, actress Eva Longoria, and the Partnership for a Healthier America in launching the new “nationwide effort to encourage Americans to drink water.
“The new effort will bring together leaders from industry, entertainment, media and government around the simple message that water is one of the best and easiest choices every one of us can make every day,” states the Office for the First Lady in its travel guidance, released Monday afternoon.
White House press officials did not return phone calls from Wisconsin Reporter.
Elly Spinweber, director of communications and marketing for the Partnership for a Healthier America, said the effort is not about telling people not to drink soda.
“It’s about getting them to drink more water. We are working with companies across all verticals in the water space,” the public relations official said in an email to Wisconsin Reporter.
Dascenzo said Watertown does have excellent drinking water, and certainly the name of the community had something to do with the first lady’s visit. She said preparations have been ongoing for quite some time.
“Everybody is excited that the first lady chose Watertown. We are very honored,” the chamber chief said.
Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]
This story was originally published Sept. 9.