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The Physicians Committee

Fast Food in Schools Fuels the Obesity Epidemic

By Trulie Ankerberg-Nobis, M.S., R.D., L.D.

This opinion piece was published on Dec. 18, 2007, in The Press & Sun-Bulletin and Dec. 20, 2007, in the Times-Tribune of Scranton, Pa.

Parents want to reward their children for earning good grades. But given our country's astonishing rates of childhood obesity, is a Happy Meal the way to go?

Ronald McDonald thinks so.

About 27,000 Seminole County, Fla., schoolchildren in kindergarten through fifth grade were recently sent home with report cards adorned with a picture of the ubiquitous red-headed clown and a promise for a free Happy Meal to any child with good grades, behavior or attendance. The report card specifically says that Happy Meals include a choice of fries, soft drink, and a hamburger, cheeseburger or chicken nuggets.

Seems like in-school fast-food marketing has a hit a new low. But it's even more shocking that the Seminole County School Board agreed to partner with McDonald's. Sure, McDonald's picked up the $1,600 printing bill for the cards, but aren't schools and parents supposed to be working together to improve our kids' diets?

McDonald's often tries to tout its handful of low-fat menu items, but how many kids go to a fast-food joint and choose the apple slices? As a parent and a dietitian, I know that many children are conditioned -- thanks in part to effective billion-dollar marketing campaigns -- to opt for fries and soda with their burger or nuggets. Children don't know that a Happy Meal could potentially contain 28 grams of fat and more than 700 calories. Neither do most parents.

McDonald's spends about a billion dollars each year marketing its products, and it aggressively targets children. But McDonald's isn't alone in its efforts.

Most fast-food corporations market their products to children through schools, movies, video games, books, Web sites, text books and television.

For parents, it's an uphill battle.

Advertisements are part of why most children in the United States don't eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Coupled with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and a decrease in physical education, America has a serious health problem on its hands.

In the United States, more than 9 million girls and boys are now overweight.

In a study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers estimate that by 2035, the prevalence of heart disease will have increased by 5 to 16 percent because of the increasing obesity rates among young people. Free Happy Meals are making the problem worse.

But schools aren't exactly innocent players in the childhood obesity epidemic, either. Many school lunch menus are still too high in saturated fat and cholesterol, and too many schoolchildren still find foot-long hot dogs, "Colossal Burgers," sodas, and junk food vending machines in the cafeteria. Children aren't offered high-fiber, nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and other low-fat vegetarian options often enough.

Some countries have already banned the marketing of soda and junk food to children, but the United States is only just beginning to set regulations for food marketing aimed at youngsters. McDonald's has pledged to only advertise its healthier options to children under 12 and to stop advertising all food or beverage products in elementary schools by January 2008. The Seminole Country advertisements will continue until the end of 2007 -- apparently McDonald's is trying to squeeze every last drop out of its in-school marketing to the very youngest schoolchildren.

Fast-food corporations have a long history of marketing their high-fat, high-calorie products in school systems. But that doesn't mean it's a tradition that should continue. Schools should refuse to partner with fast-food corporations or at least ban advertisements for foods high in fat, sugar and cholesterol.

Most schools could also do a lot more to improve the food served in their own cafeteria lines and lunch rooms.

Schools that allow fast-food companies to send advertisements home on a child's report card sabotage parents' attempts to promote healthy eating at home. This isn't the first time schools in Seminole County or elsewhere have traded free advertising with McDonald's or other corporations for money, but it should be the last.

Ankerberg-Nobis, M.S., R.D., L.D., lives in Atlanta and offers nutrition counseling through Atlanta Nutrition, a business she owns and operates. She is also a dietitian with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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