Guest Blogger: Ronald McDonald, school lunch, and our children’s diets

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.
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25 thoughts on “Guest Blogger: Ronald McDonald, school lunch, and our children’s diets

  1. Great post! Thanks for the insight.

    We use to eat McDonald's pretty regularly (once a week or so) until I found a phone app that actually gives the total calories for the whole "value meal." A Big Mac combo with medium fires and medium coke is 1130 calories! The fries alone are 398 calories. We decided to do better by our family and community. We eat at locally owned restaraunts (for lunch, the meals generally cost the same as fast food and taste much better) and teach our children how to make good choices no matter where they are eating. I have 2 daughters and a son, so we don't harp on diet or calories. We simply teach what choices are better for thier bodies. Something as simple as informing a hungry 12 year old that a snack of a cookie means 1 cookie, but, if she chooses cucumbers and hummus or fruit and yogurt, she will be able to eat until she feels full can make all the difference.

    This choice also means we must look at the school lunch menu (the few times a year they decide to eat there) and talk about what would be the best choice and hope that our influence extends beyond our front door.

  2. BRAVO! I agree wholeheartedly that schools should be marketing free zones.

    I'd love to see the American Academy of Pediatrics step up their language and make a strong statement on advertising to kids in schools.

  3. What a great informative post!! It is definitely time to fix the problem with school food!
    I am blessed to have full control over what I feed my girls, and they do eat very well.
    If you have a chance stop by and see some of our meals….

  4. I really appreciate this post as it has addressed part of the problem that had not yet been addressed, the marketing/power of corporations on our children. Junk food machines and any fast food chain should be banned from all campuses. That's just my opinion. It's an American cultural phenom, Let's grab consumers at their most vulnerable stage, when their taste-buds are just forming and reel them in to sugary and salty.

  5. It has been four years this summer since I read the book Fast Food Nation. I have not stepped foot in a McDonalds since.
    Great article

  6. GREAT post. Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. It is tricky with the great work of the Ronald McDonald Houses and…the rest of the chain. Subsidies. We need to start valuing our food and our health. We've got everything to lose.

  7. I agree this is a big problem. I went to high school in Capistrano Unified in California in the 90s and our cafeteria was sponsored by PEPSI so they served taco bell and pizza hut. I remember discussing with my cross country coach what was the healthiest and them suggesting either veggie pizza or chilito (chili filled tortilla). Not exactly the healthiest lunches ever (: It was in high school the early 90s so I have no idea if they are doing this. I think there has been way more press about eating healthy the past few years and hope if it continues things will change and people will begin to think about what they are putting in their bodies and press for changes like you suggested. Thanks for your post.

  8. What an insightful and well worded post. I am especially aware of what farm policy is doing to our food supply. Bravo to you for mentioning that politics plays a huge role in allowing these predatory companies access to cheap raw materials which better allows them to have huge marketin budgets.
    Thanks you for this post!

  9. It is almost impossible to get away from marketing, I think marketing in the schools is practically criminal and reminds me of brainwashing. It really is in a way. No wonder I think clowns are creepy.

    Maybe the CDC should be in charge of school meals.

  10. Just a note, the first McDonald's in a public school was in Benton, Arkansas. AK is Alaska, Arkansas is AR.

    Regardless of that point, I completely agree with the problem of the quality of the school food. I remember in Elementary school that the food seemed pretty good although we couldn't afford to eat it more than maybe once or twice a month. Once I got into middle school and then high school it was really awful. Nachos and cheese, huge containers of fries, and we had Pizza Hut pizza and Taco Bell in the highschool cafeteria along with Baskin Robins ice cream. You can guess what got eaten the most and it was NOT the tray lunch. And taking P.E. or gym out of the curriculum is probably the dumbest thing I've ever heard. I'm glad my kids go to really small public schools here in Arkansas and they still get to play outside every day.

  11. Dear Mrs Q, I just found this site today and plan to read from beginning to most recent. I recently have returned to school to study nutrition. I am appalled at what is served for school lunches (and in the breakfast program as well). My children rarely eat school lunches because as my son said "mom, that food is gross"

    Thank you for this whole blog.

  12. I think that no matter how they wrap him up and package him, Ronald McDonald still represents a food company peddling unhealthy food choices. We need to get the clown out of our schools.

  13. It really bothers me that everyone keeps villifying McDonalds as the cause of our nation's and children's health problems. As far as I can see they have taken on the mantle of corporate responsibility and published their nutrition statistics in easily accessible places, they have adjusted and changed their menu and made childrens meals particularly more flexible with fruit and alternative items. But everyone holds them up as the instigator of obesity in America.

    When I read this blog I do see a lot of griping about parents not feeding their children properly or educating them on healthy and nutritional food. That is where the responsibility lies. Next, it lies with the school. Nutrition should be more than a once a year module in gym class. Finally it lies with the community – no one should ever tolerate any fast food from Mcdonalds or from the district food service in their school cafeterias.

    I grew up with excitement when I received one of those coupons for a burger or fries – because it was a treat for me. 1-2 times a month my parents would allow me to go to Mcdonalds. Now I go 1 time every 6 months for a Big Mac and maybe 1 time avery 3 months for a grilled something. And more often for a coffee. It is still a treat. I cook at home and belong to a CSA – that doesn't mean I eschew eating out once a week. It is moderation. It pains me to see my nieces consume Mcdonalds after school between activities at least 1 time per week and even more sometimes. My sister and I grew up in the same household and have two different approaches. Are we really too busy? I don't think so. We just place values on different things than we were younger.

    Regardless, responsibility for this starts in the mirror – not with bashing a restaurant. I don't want my periodic treats taken away because others can't control themselves or take time to plan or read what is available to them. I do take this time and plan and make educated decisions.

  14. The Ronald McDonald House is a great thing, and I'm grateful that they fund it (well, take up collections for it), but it never would have started had it not been for a football player who saw a need when his daughter got sick. You know, Wal-Mart does a lot of good things too, but the bad far out weighs the good.

    Hubs and I do donate to the RMH when he manages to drag me into a McD's, but I try to make those times as limited as possible.

    I'm all for eliminating subsidies. I'm also for reigning in the FDA and eliminating the USDA. But, some dreams never come true…

    Oops. Sorry to be a downer. 🙂

  15. This seems to be misdirected anger. McDonald's is in the business of selling its food products. Parents need to educate their children about nutrition and set limits. Vilifying the corporation shifts the blame from where it belongs. Lazy parents.

  16. "Vilifying the corporation shifts the blame from where it belongs. Lazy parents."

    How are the parents to blame for their money being stolen and used to subsidize corporations, thus giving those corporations unfair advantage in the marketplace?

  17. It's interesting, don't you think, that those leaving comments praising and defending McDonalds choose to do so anonymously.

    I nearly strangled my niece's idiot 2nd grade teacher when I found out that her idea of music education was to teach the children a song that began with the lyrics:

    McDonalds, McDonalds [making an M sign]
    Pizza Hut! Pizza Hut! [miming eating pizza]

    I forget what the rest of the lyrics were. (I think the same lyrics were featured in Supersize Me.) You don't need the clown and his ads when you indoctrinate the teachers.

    I don't have children, but face it, until parents get involved and kick the fast food giants out of schools, *your* kids don't stand a chance.

  18. I don't really give a damn about this big hoopla over Ronald McDonald. To me, it's just a blame game. It's just a clown for goodness sakes! And kids can't really understand that the "heart and soul" of the charity are the volunteers. Throwing in a clown is just so much easier for them to understand. Just think of the clown as a symbol for the charity house.

  19. My school has a McDonald's right across the street in which many staff members go to for breakfast and lunch. They also get treats from there to reward students. Last night some of the school staff volunteered and worked at McDonald's for what is called a McTeacher night. We worked for 2 hours and we will get a 10% profit of the sales from that time. We did it as a fund raiser to help raise money to build a playground for my school. People make the choice to eat there. I ate there. Today I packed extra vegetables and fruit in my lunch to try and make up for the apple pie I had from there! I don't eat there often though because I have educated myself on the nutritional information and I try to eat healthy the majority of the time. But when pressed for time and hungering for a quick fix, I can't pass up a double cheeseburger! I just make up for it by eating healthy and exercising!

  20. omg are you serious??!! They have McDonalds in schools in America??

    I have just worked my butt off for 5 years to eliminate most of the crap food from the primary school canteen that I manage in Australia…

    Reading this post makes me wonder if there is even any point in trying… great post by the way thankyou.

  21. This whole society is about $$$. What do you expect? You can't go anywhere without having to do with money, money, money! Just because McDonalds sell terrible foods doesn't mean they can't create a charity in their name. It might be ironic but at least they are doing something good…in spite of the fact that their main goal is to make MONEY. So what is with all this irrational blaming over Ronald McDonald!? He's just a petty clown for goodness sakes, just a lure/marketing tool for kids. And it's the parent's fault since they are the one driving their kids to McDonalds. Kids can't drive cars to Mickey Ds. They don't have money. IT IS THE PARENT'S FAULT for choosing fast food. They just choose the easy way out and just can't say no to their kids.
    How is it McDonalds fault for doing what everyone else is doing? Which is trying to make MONEY! It is not entirely McDonalds fault. Even though they aren't helping the matter by adding clowns and ads to try and lure kids in, it is ultimately the parent's decision. McDonalds is a business. Not some dandy church. You just can't point the finger at McDonalds (or in this case, Ronald McDonald) for making kids obese. This whole generation is about MONEY, MONEY, MONEY. And McDonalds is the same; they set out to make (say it with me now) MONEY!

  22. Beep: Then they should make that money honestly, by providing a product people are willing to pay for and by competing honestly in the marketplace, not by playing welfare leech and going whining and crying to Uncle Sugar for subsidies.

  23. @Anonymous 1:48 – If McDonalds shouldn't be vilified as a cause of our health problems, then why should it be blocked from schools and not tolerated in our communities? Is it good or bad?

    Oh sure, McDonalds is such a responsible corporation, posting all nutritional information in a big poster with tiny type that they know people won't read. And they make quite sure everyone knows about the good work the Ronald McDonald House does. And now they serve fruit and salads too! Wow.

    They hook kids into their system with toys and kid's meals and free fries and a playroom and cartoon characters (including the scary clown), but they are totally blameless, right? Then why is it bad when your nieces eat it once a week?

    Why don't you tell everyone exactly how often we should be eating at McDonalds? You seem to have figured out the correct frequency. You're seriously afraid that someone will take away your treats? Good lord – go cook yourself a nasty burger and fries.

    And seriously, if everyone did as you suggest and take more personal responsibility for what they eat, they would never eat at McDs (I never ever do). Then your precious treat purveyor would go out of business. Oh no! Then where would you be? Cooking your nasty burgers and fries on your own, that's where. Actually, the stuff you'd make at home might be healthier, as you'd be using more food and fewer chemicals.

    I fear McDonalds will never go away – they're too big. Sure, Krispy Kreme had to downsize, but they were never as big, and they grew too fast, and I wouldn't entirely chalk it up to people wising up about what's bad for them.

    And Beep, if McDs is right around the corner from school, kids don't need a ride. And many kids have plenty of money these days; more than enough to buy from the dollar menu.

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