The University of Rhode Island’s local foods market have disappeared from campus again, but this time students can blame the Coca-Cola company for the absence.
The return of the URI Slow Food’s market was short lived, only appearing once on Feb. 2 for a few short hours. Two days later, official word from Coca-Cola came to URI Slow Food President Kayleigh Hill that hosting one of the market’s new vendors was in direct violation of their beverage agreement with the university. Â
Fully Rooted, the vendor in question, is a raw cold-press juice company based in Warwick, Rhode Island, that shares a similar product in common with Coca-Cola, according to Liliana Costa, assistant to the vice president for administration and finance. Â
A minority investment in Suja Juices from The Coca-Cola Company last August gave Coca-Cola a minority ownership of the company. Suja Juice, named Forbes’ No. 2 most promising company of 2015, offers similar organic, non-GMO, cold-pressured juices that Fully Rooted produces. Â
When Suja learned of the market and the sustainability mission of URI Slow Food they were eager to join, but Hill said that inviting Suja to the market would go against the mission of the group.
“That defeats the whole purpose,” Hill said. “The purpose was to support local vendors, not national corporations. Â They tried to tell me that they had local branches of Coca-Cola, so they were local.”
After it was officially determined that Fully Rooted could not be welcomed back on campus, the other participating vendors decided not to return as well. Â A large part of the decision was that most vendors did not believe it was profitable to return without one of the market’s vendors. Â
Hill said that Steve Demeter, owner of The Coffee Guy, most likely chose not to return due to his close associations with Angelo Mollis of Fully Rooted. Â Demeter was reached out to for comment, but did not reply. Â
Costa made an effort to negotiate with Coca-Cola to turn a blind eye to the once-a-week event, but any form of competition on campus goes against the university’s beverage contract agreement. Â
The agreement between URI and Coca-Cola gives 80 percent of the retail shelf space on campus, places like The Corner Store or Ram’s Den, to Coca-Cola products. Â For the remaining 20 percent, shelf space is only allowed to non-competitive products that Coca-Cola doesn’t offer. Â This may not seem like much, but Coca-Cola sells more than just soda. Â Coca-Cola also sells popular brands such as Vitamin Water, FUZE, Minute Made, Monster, PowerAde and DASANI. Â
Each year, Coca-Cola donates Â $250,000 to URI, in addition to the commissions from vending machines and $250,000 of free product, according to Costa. Â Additional funds are also given annually toward the marketing budget on campus. Â All of this is funded to help instill brand loyalty in the college demographic.
Hill said she does not blame the university in any way, but she does believe that Coca-Cola had too extreme of a reaction to the student-run event that happened only once a week. Â
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Hill said. “It’s good that they give us money, that’s really nice of them. But I don’t think it’s fair that it’s created a barrier for me and now this isn’t going to happen because of them. Â That’s not fair to the students.” Â
Sheri Davis, student involvement coordinator of facility/marketing, said many students and faculty were disappointed to see the market disappear from campus, but that she also understands why having Fully Rooted on campus was such an issue. “Coke is a really good partner to the university,” Davis said. Â
One of the most understanding reactions to the news came from Fully Rooted. Â Amanda Repose of Fully Rooted said that the company understands the situation at hand and that they’re moving on. As a recent alumnus of URI’s business school, Repose said that things like this happen in business all the time, but it’s important to abide by it.
“We are so proud of the initiatives taken by the Slow Food Movement and don’t want something like this to discourage them from continuing to advocate for local business and products,” Repose said. Â
The market will hopefully return next semester, provided by future efforts of URI Slow Food. Â Until then, Hill is also working toward bringing local vendors’ food into the dining halls at the moment. Â
“It’s good to know that it’s unfortunate that this happened, but good things will come out of it,” Hill said. Â