Surely it’s another episode of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The McDonald’s clown as the new expert on nutrition and healthy eating? Tell me it isn’t so.
It seems Ronald McDonald visited the Union Terrace Elementary in Allentown, Pennsylvania to lecture students on healthy eating and then, according to ABC News, “broke into a 40-minute ‘Go Active with Ronald McDonald’ show intended to encourage kids to up their physical activity.”
So has the leopard changed its spots? Let’s take a closer look.
McDonald’s Making Positive Moves
McDonald’s has definitely been making some good moves lately. They are adding fruits and vegetables to Happy Meals. They are discontinuing their use of pink slime. They are phasing out the cruel gestation crates that keep sows penned in tight quarters. They are testing paper cups to replace Styrofoam.
Those decisions give them a lot of points in corporate citizenship. Still, the distance between the popular McDonald’s fast-food fare and truly healthy food remains a chasm.
So when a franchisee offers cash-strapped schools $1,000 to let Ronald McDonald come in as a spokesman for healthy eating, red flags flap in the breeze.
New Alarms about Obesity
News of the school visit comes on the heels of a report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that estimates 42 percent of Americans will be obese by 2030, costing the health-care system an extra $550 billion dollars.
The next day, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies released its new report calling for a multi-faceted approach to obesity, including the goal to “Make healthy foods and beverages available everywhere.”
Health professionals not receiving perks from the fast-food industry generally agree McDonald’s is a contributor to the obesity epidemic. Adding a little fruit to a Happy Meal does not change the fat and salt content of most of the chain’s offerings. And sending Ronald McDonald out to peddle health and nutrition puts an undeserved shine on the fast-food purveyor.
Serving the Calories, Fat and Salt
Here are some examples from the McDonald’s Web site:
- An ordinary hamburger weighs in at a mere 250 calories, 9 g of fat and 490 mg of sodium. Add a slice of cheese, and those numbers change to 300 calories, 12 g of fat and 720 mg of sodium.
- A Quarter Pounder with cheese serves up 520 calories, 26 g of fat and 1,180 mg of sodium.
- Most people want at least a small order of fries with that, so add 230 calories, 11 g of fat and 160 mg of sodium to any of the above.
- A Happy Meal with a cheeseburger delivers 700 calories, 19.5 g of fat and 915 mg of sodium.
- A strawberry shake totals 570 calories, 17 g of fat and 170 mg of sodium.
- A snack-size serving of Chicken McBites contributes 310 calories, 19 g of fat and 490 mg of sodium.
The healthy, low-calorie, low-fat, low-salt items are outliers on the McDonald’s lineup. Only a company spokesman like Ronald McDonald would claim they are the stars of the show or even representative of the chain’s standard fare.
Cheap Way of Marketing
Come to think of it, at $1,000 a pop for a captive audience, McDonald’s franchisees can make a tiny investment with big payoffs. This is a smart company, one that is clever at finding all kinds of creative ways to keep their name in the public eye and their food expanding our waistlines.
Clare Leschin-Hoar wrote for Care2 Causes about another tactic, courting influential bloggers. The tactic pays off handsomely — free publicity with a patina of integrity.
McDonald’s is certainly not the only food company to profit from tactics that put an unmerited shine on their products. They are also not the only company marketing unhealthy food to children.
But when they send Ronald McDonald into schools, ostensibly to promote health, they fall down the rabbit hole of Alice’s Wonderland, where things are not what they seem. And they cross over an ethical boundary.
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