Walter Johnson High School students have a tradition of political activism. First, it was the Montgomery County bottle deposit bill. Then, it was the 1980 Earth Day and construction of a solar collector for display. Somewhere in between came "Hell no, we won't go" and "No nukes."
Now, a group of more than 40 students from the Bethesda school have joined the Nestle boycott, aimed at bringing pressure on the corporation to halt the promotion of infant formula in developing countries.
The students plan to organize a Bethesda boycott of the company's products, which include Stouffer's frozen foods, L'Oreal cosmetics, Taster's Choice coffee, Nestea and Los Hermanos wines, in addition to many chocolate products.
The Walter Johnson teen-agers, armed with a letter explaining the ill effects of Nestle infant formulas on babies around the world, last week marched to the Giant Food near their school and asked the manager to join the boycott.
"Realistically, we know Giant's not going to take Nestle's off their shelves," said senior Karen Ledsky, a boycott organizer. "But we're looking for a compromise."
Consumer boycotts of Nestle began in the early 70s. Boycott supporters cite instances where they say nestle has used improper tactics to persuade hospitals in underdeveloped countries to use baby formulas and to recommend mothers use formulas instead of breastfeeding.
Protestors contend that once mothers of newborns in developing countries become "hooked" by hospitals on using formula, they may not administer it correctly because of unclean water and lack of facilities and fuel for sterilization or refrigeration. And because the formula is expensive, taking a disproportionate amount of the family income, poor mothers often dilute it to the point where their babies become malnourished. The worst cases, protestors say, result in disease and death.
When the students visited the neighborhood Giant, they said they were met with a "very condescending and cold" reception. The management of the local store could not be reached for comment.
A group of student representatives met later the same day with Giant consumer adviser Odonna Mathews and spokesman Barry Scher to ask that the food chain boycott Nestle products. The Giant representatives said the chain leaves the decision to consumers.
"We're very sympathetic and we've been aware of the issue for some time," Mathews said. "But we feel the consumer has the right to choose. We shouldn't tell them what to buy and what not to buy. If the product doesn't sell, obviously it's not going to be out there."
A Nestle official denied that the company's intention is to promote infant formula over breastfeeding.
"Having consistently supported a policy that recognizes the superiority of breastfeeding for the well-being of infants, the Nestle Company believes the time has come to end the debate and the polemics. Boycott activity in the U.S. will not end the poverty, illiteracy and pollution that contribute to malnutrition," stated the company.
Paulette Barrett, a Nestle spokeswoman, also said the profits and sales earned by the swiss-owned multinational corporation have not been affected by the consumer boycott.
At a meeting last weekend, the Bethesda students discussed their objections to Nestle products and their boycott strategy.
A major source of information, the students said, has been the Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT), a Minneapolis-based group formed to organize the boycott nationally. The group opened a Washington office last November.
"What we're faced with now is we've got to have a plan," senior organizer Michael Docter told the group. "We'll need to picket Giant and tell shoppers about the boycott . . . We need committees. And we've got to make some money. INFACT has a film about Nestle. We could charge people to come to that."
Docter also said they will get INFACT literature "to throw out all over the place." He outlined plans to spread the word with "a phone tree," and urged fellow students to write letters to their congressmen and senators.
The students said they intend to contact both faculty and students at Woodward and Bethesda-Chevy Chase high schools. They also are gearing up to involve junior high schools ("nobody's too young," one commented) and churches, and to secure "endorsements from members of the community."
Some students will find an added source of support in their parents.
"My dad is special counsel to Congressman Ron Dellums and I first heard about the boycott from him," said junior Janet Baker. "They tried to pass a special bill in the House. It was a motion to do some investigating."
Dellums, a California Democrat, has introduced a bill in the House which seeks to moderate infant formula promotion policies of U.S. companies operating abroad. The legislation would not effect the Swiss-owned Nestle.
Liz Tseng, a junior class student, said her mother reports she believes Nestle's stock has been piling up at their local Giant and Grand Union stores. "She says it's not that good anyway," Tseng remarked.
Senior Blake Cornish said he recently told his mother how he feels about Nestle.
"I saw my mom had bought two big jars of Nestea and I said 'Mom, what are you doing?'" Cornish recalled.