Why the Happy Meals-for-good-grades scheme deserves an ‘F’
McDonald’s apparently isn’t content with strategically locating its franchises near schools across America, operating food outlets within pediatric hospitals, and hosting “McTeacher Night” fundraisers at which teachers work shifts at the counters to raise money for their classrooms.
No, that’s not enough for the giant multinational “food” service company. Now McDonald’s has purchased the right to put a Happy Meal coupon on each of the student’s report cards in a Seminole, Fla., school district for less than the price of a small bag of fries.
This is depraved.
Why is it acceptable to reward our children for successful academic performance with something that will harm them? How can we, as a society, allow this kind of corporate conduct when the most recent study on Body Mass Index (BMI) states that over 19 percent of American children are currently overweight or obese, and that a higher BMI in children is associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease as an adult?
How can we turn a blind eye to this blatant exploitation of our children when the Centers for Disease Control has stated that, of the kids born in the year 2000, one out of every three Caucasians and one out of every two African Americans and Hispanics will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime, many before they graduate high school, and that this generation could be the first to die at a younger age than their parents?
What’s next? Ten years from now, will McDonald’s be offering Happy Meals coupons for kids who keep up with their insulin? Displaying the golden arches on insulin kits, artificial limbs, and coffins?
In an effort to help children lead healthier lives, we and other school-food reformers and childhood health advocates work tirelessly to encourage kids to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. We serve them whole foods cooked from scratch in schools, we teach cooking and gardening classes, and we support academic curricula that link food, health, and the environment. We know that we must change children’s relationship to food if we are to successfully influence their lifelong eating habits.
And McDonald’s knows this, too.
But while our interest is in improving the long-term health and well-being of our nation’s children, McDonald’s goal is to boost its profits. So McDonald’s promotes its own self interest in building lifelong brand loyalty in young children, increasing the “pester factor” (in which kids nag their parents to purchase targeted items), and convincing children and parents alike of the necessity of “kid food.”
All the while, McDonald’s is blatantly ignoring the obvious: that their insidious marketing schemes could cause their young customers’ BMI to rise even higher. And now they’re doing it in the context of academic report cards.
There really ought to be a law.
Indeed, there are such laws — in over 50 countries, governments regulate marketing campaigns that target children. But in America, millions of corporate dollars are paid to hundreds of lawyers and lobbyists to insure that the First Amendment is interpreted in a way that values corporate profits over children’s health. Add this to the ubiquitous underfunding of education that drives school districts to look for innovative ways to increase revenues, and Happy Meals are virtually guaranteed the right to contribute to unhappy health.
What makes this so intolerable is that children are sent to school to learn. Parents and children agonize over academic performance. Teachers and administrators struggle to comply with increasingly rigorous state testing standards. Even our federal government has mandated that no child be left behind.
But then we put our children in an environment in which they learn that unhealthy food is not only acceptable, but a coveted reward for successful academic achievement: something to strive for. In doing so, we’re manufacturing desires that could ultimately cost kids their health and their very lives.
All the adults involved in this debacle should be ashamed: the management of McDonald’s who dreamed up this scheme, the school district administrators and board members who approved it, and the parents who failed to complain. But the rest of us who read the press accounts of such events and merely shake our heads with little more than apathy should also be ashamed. As voting taxpayers, we are equally to blame.
If we are to save our children from a future plagued with diet-related illness, we must find within ourselves sufficient remorse at our own inaction and outrage at our corrupt system, to demand change in our nation’s marketing laws. Sadly, our fear is that we will fail to do so before our children look up at us from their hospital beds and ask us why we weren’t better teachers.
Get Grist in your inbox