Nation’s Second-Largest School District Wants to Kick McDonald’s Out

Personal Health

For Edwina Magana, the food selection at her school’s McTeacher’s Night was slim. Because her diet is gluten-free, the fifth-grade teacher at Charnock Road Elementary in West Los Angeles had to turn down any schoolkid’s dream: a vast selection of burgers, fries, shakes, and sodas. 

“I couldn’t even have croutons or dressing, so I basically just ate lettuce,” she said. “The food was so unhealthy.”

The nationwide program by McDonald’s is billed as a fundraising event, where teachers and administrators in branded uniforms make and serve McDonald’s fast food to families and students at full price. Since January 2013, more than 120 McTeacher’s Night events have been held in the greater Los Angeles area, according to Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

But those same educators are now publicly criticizing McDonald’s for aggressively undermining children’s health. On Nov. 2, the United Teachers of Los Angeles issued an open letter to Clayton F. Paschen III, president of the McDonald’s Operators Association of Southern California, urging him to end the promotion of McTeacher’s Night in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the United States. On Sept. 16, the UTLA published a formal memo to its 35,000 members denouncing McTeacher’s Nights and discouraging schools in the LAUSD from participating in the event. The memo, which appeared in UTLA’s member newsletter, listed as some of its reasons the fast-food giant’s predatory marketing practices and exploitation of both kids and teachers.

Magana agrees with that criticism. At the local McDonald’s where Charnock Road Elementary held its fundraising, breaks were scarce and it was a challenge to monitor every student, she said. Because many of the families live below the poverty line and work long hours, the shortage of parents at the event meant that kids weren’t always looked after. One boy even broke his arm.

The motion to denounce McTeacher’s Nights is the culmination of a year-long campaign—one that included an open letter from more than 50 local and state teachers’ unions throughout the United States to McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook. The letter highlighted the harmful impacts of marketing junk food to children: namely, the spread of diet-related diseases like obesity and Type 2 diabetes, described in the letter as “the largest preventable health crisis in the U.S.” Through this motion, educators hope to achieve a healthy, disease-free future for their students.

“If you show them the pictures of the golden arches, why is it every 2-year-old knows what that is?” asked Cecily Myart-Cruz, UTLA vice president.

The answer to that may lie in the fact that the food industry spends more than $1.6 billion every year marketing to children. The foods most heavily marketed to them include fast food, soft drinks, sugary breakfast cereals, and salty snacks. And the ads are constant: Children ages 2 to 17 see 4,400 to 7,600 commercials a year, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which conducts health research.

Children aren’t the only targets, though—so are the public health institutions designed to protect them. From 2011 to 2015, soft drink companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo funded 96 major American health organizations, including the American Diabetes Association, American Heart Association, National Institutes of Health, and Harvard Medical School.

And health organizations may inadvertently be participating in junk food marketing practices by engaging in these partnerships, said Boston University public health researchers Daniel G. Aaron and Michael B. Siegel. The researchers believe that these predatory marketing practices and questionable conflicts of interest with major junk food companies are perpetuating the childhood obesity epidemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past few decades: More than 18 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were obese in 2012, compared to 7 percent in 1980. Today, more than one-third are overweight or obese.

“If I’m pushing this salt-laden, fat-laden, obesity-ridden content, I become a pusher, like a drug dealer,” said Myart-Cruz. “It’s a harsh way to say it, but it has those overtones and undertones.”

In addition, these practices take advantage of impoverished areas with limited school budgets, she said. Charnock Road Elementary, for instance, is a primarily Black and Latino community with almost 80 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

And even though the fast-food chain promises to donate a portion of the McTeacher’s Nights proceeds directly to participating schools, the amount is typically just 15 to 20 percent. That’s $1 to $2 per student.

If the school is raising money for a bus, for instance, one fundraising night might generate only $40—a dollar each student. “So then I’d have to do six fundraisers to make [enough] money? It’s exploitation,” said Myart-Cruz.

The need for additional resources like extra buses is just another reason schools like Charnock Road Elementary rely on corporate sponsorship and fundraising. Schools also need money to send students on educational field trips: to the beach, the aquarium, or outdoor camps. Many of the LAUSD students have never had those types of outdoor experiences.

Ending McTeacher’s Nights means that educators will have to find alternative ways to raise funds, but Myart-Cruz believes it’s worth it. Magana agrees. “It’s hypocritical to teach kids about nutrition in the classroom and then send them to these unhealthy food places,” she said.

So, whether through bake sales or auctions, the district is willing to fundraise with practices that aren’t exploitive of teachers and students. “At the end of the day, it is about children, not profit,” said Myart-Cruz.

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