Guest Blogger: Judy Grant, Value [the] Meal Director, Corporate Accountability International (and mother of a newborn J)
Since January, I’ve been following Fed Up With Lunch intently, not to mention Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, and the First Lady’s plan for healthy school lunches.
As a new mother, I have already discovered how, from the very beginning, it is a challenge for parents to feed their children as they believe best. School lunches – hardly gourmet fare in most places even now – are a matter especially dear to my heart, especially in light of my organization’s initiative to partner with parents in holding corporations accountable for their role in the health epidemic we now face – Value [the] Meal.
As I see it, there are a number of roadblocks to healthier school lunch: the supply chain, blurred lines between commercial and public space, and predatory marketing (in and around schools, and everywhere children spend their time). And it may not surprise readers to know that the most-recognized junk food corporation has a primary role in erecting each of these impediments (especially for those who have seen “Supersize Me” or read “Fast Food Nation”).
First, it’s not hard to understand why processed, calorie-dense, low-nutrition food (that bears a striking resemblance to what you could get from the Golden Arches) has become a staple of school cafeterias. After all, McDonald’s is the nation’s leading purchaser of beef, pork, potatoes, and apples. It became as much by creating its own supply chain – a supply chain built to deliver a high volume of cheap, consistent food.
McDonald’s suppliers (and their trade associations) have in turn aggressively lobbied for taxpayer subsidies that keep the price of fast food ingredients artificially low, while health foods receive no such aid (though subsidies for fresh foods could, in fact, help spare the health of a generation). As more and more corporations have emulated McDonald’s highly successful supply chain economics, the food landscape has shifted accordingly.
So where does that leave our cash-strapped school lunch programs? To make sure the tens of millions receiving or buying school lunch are served, they must often default to what is most affordable – purchasing within a supply chain oriented toward profit not public health. In the current system, there is unfortunately a hefty price tag for feeding our kids better as both Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver have discovered; at least if the current system is not changed…but more on solutions later.
The other roadblock to better school lunch is something McDonald’s pioneered in 1976 in Benton, AK. That year, it opened the first McDonald’s inside a public school. Today, nearly a quarter of the nation’s schools sell branded fast food. Though advertising, especially for unhealthy products, has largely been discouraged in public buildings it has become accepted practice not only to advertise but to actually sell fast food in schools.
This is concerning, not only because much of this food is unhealthy, but because it puts an official stamp of approval on a product that no nutritionist would recommend kids eat five times a week. The school’s validation also gives students and parents all the more reason to believe such food is safe to consume regularly outside the cafeteria as well. Former FDA Administrator David Kessler has also pointed out how the addictive properties of fat, salt, and sugar keep kids coming back for junk food, even when healthier options are made available.
A third roadblock, is one McDonald’s has erected where schools are restrictive about advertising and the sale of branded fast food. In a recent poll released by Corporate Accountability International (conducted by Lake Research), we found that it has become taboo for corporations to market unhealthy products to kids with children’s characters like Joe Camel and Ronald McDonald. The American Academy of Pediatrics for one, says that, “advertising directed toward children is inherently deceptive and exploits children under eight years of age.” Children’s psychologists point out that young children cannot understand marketing’s persuasive intent…or, in other words, that marketing is marketing.
Still, parents can do a great deal to shield children from McDonald’s nearly $2 billion in annual advertising. That’s why McDonald’s has increasingly sought to exploit environments parents are unable to constantly monitor – namely schools. You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that Ronald McDonald keeps up a frenetic schedule of visits to schools – all under the guise of “corporate responsibility.”
In these visits, the clown teaches kids about a host of things, not least of which is nutrition. Perplexing, right? The “hamburger-happy” clown teaching kids bout nutrition? But that’s not all, the clown also promotes literacy (both in schools and at neighborhood libraries), sometimes with the help of a book titled “I’m Hungry” and a fistful of gift certificates for soda and fries. In the end, everything the clown teaches is better left to parents and educators, whose main agenda isn’t to hook kids on a product and the brand behind it.
And if Ronald can’t penetrate schools, the corporation has a longstanding practice of zoning franchises right next door. So even if a high school were to serve healthier food, when the doors open for lunch, McDonald’s is poised to receive students instead. The proximity is a constant marketing opportunity and also makes for an easy before or after school destination. If kids grow-up with the brand there is also a high probability they will stay with it as adults.
So how is a healthier school lunch to fare when it is faced all these obstacles, and hasn’t the brand might of a McDonald’s to make it a meal worth emulating when kids return home?
For one, McDonald’s and other junk food corporations should be removed from schools. That means no more branded fast food should be sold in schools. No more junk food should be sold in schools. No more advertising, however veiled, should be permitted in schools. As parents, our schools should allow the values we have worked so hard to instill in our children to be so actively undermined.
In the longer term, we also need to reevaluate farm subsidies. No longer can we prop up a supply chain that rewards a handful of corporations at a dire expense to our health and well-being. The First Lady shouldn’t have to find a $1 more for every school lunch so that our kids can eat well, when fast food corporations pay so little for products that are making our kids sick.
*Many parents have asked about what this initiative means for the Ronald McDonald House Charities, whose work we commend. The corporation has, in fact, claimed that Ronald is the “heart and soul” of the Charity. To us that’s saddening. We think the heart and soul of the Charity is the thousands of volunteer caretakers and children who receive support there not a corporate mascot. We’d like to see the hundreds of millions McDonald’s spends on predatory marketing go directly to the Charity absent the cross-promotional clown.