Food

McDonald's McTeacher’s Nights: Community Fundraising or Sick Plot to Hook Children on Junk Food?

Teachers are holding events at McDonald's to raise money for good causes—but is there something more sinister going on?

On April 27, teachers from the Reed-Custer schools in Braidwood, Illinois, gathered at their local McDonald’s for the evening shift. They greeted guests, worked the drive-thru and front counter, cleared tables, served drinks and sold food to their own students.

These teachers weren’t moonlighting as fast-food workers. Instead, it was a “McTeacher’s Night,” an evening where teachers “work” at their local McDonald’s to raise money for school-related causes. During these events, a portion of the evening’s sales—usually around 15-20 percent—is donated to the school for the specific fundraising need.

The Braidwood fundraiser was for a local 9-year-old student who has a congenital heart defect and was awaiting a heart transplant at the children’s hospital. Julie Travers, who helped organize the event and works as the community relations director for McDonald's franchise owners in Illinois, told AlterNet roughly $2,000 of the evening’s proceeds went to the student and the student’s mother, who currently lives at a Ronald McDonald House.

By all accounts, it was a great evening for a great cause. It brought together students, their families and community members. High school and middle-school cheerleaders gave a performance alongside the high school jazz band and Ronald McDonald himself made an appearance.

Coincidently, earlier that same day, a new online action center was launched by watchdog groups Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and Corporate Accountability International to put an end to McTeacher’s Nights for good. More than 15,000 members of the public and the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country, representing more than 3 million teachers and education professionals, are demanding an end to these programs. 

According to the organizations’ numbers, more than 600 McTeacher’s Nights have occurred in more than 30 states since 2013, but the programs date back to the early 2000s. The San Francisco Chronicle reported back in 2002 that McTeacher’s Nights had expanded to 2,500 schools in 14 western states.

“From the very beginning, it struck us as fundamentally wrong and unconscionable that McDonald’s is getting in front of children and in schools and exploiting their relationship with teachers to develop brand loyalty,” said Sriram Madhousoodanan, the campaign director of Corporate Accountability International’s Value the Meal campaign.

“Teachers are working so hard as it is,” he continued. “They don’t need to be taken advantage of by the world’s leading junk food corporation to become walking billboards.”

Then again, many teachers appear to love these nights. Search “McTeachers Night” on Facebook or the Twitter hashtag #McTeachersNight and up pop countless enthusiastic comments, posts and photos of smiling faces from all corners of the country.

Here’s the McTeacher’s Night at Banyan Elementary in Miami, Florida, on April 14:

Here’s the McTeacher’s Night at Codwell Elementary in Houston, Texas, also on April 14:

Travers, who doesn’t work for the McDonald’s Corporation, said she has organized nearly 300 McTeacher’s Nights at Illinois franchises in the past six years and has “never seen any negative remarks from teachers or parents.” She estimates that $1,000 on average is raised per occasion.

“It’s so the opposite of what the negative articles are saying,” Travers said about the campaign to end McTeacher’s Nights. “We really get unjustly targeted.”

Lovin’ it, not lovin’ it

In my conversations with campaigners, teachers, parents and business owners about McTeacher’s Nights, it’s clear there are two sides to this debate. For better or worse, the 61-year-old McDonald’s Corporation is in many ways attached to our diets, our livelihoods and our convictions. Just take a look at what these three teachers, who prefer to remain anonymous, said:

Teacher #1: “For struggling schools, why not take advantage of it? A penny is a penny. Because if you do it for one night, they might afford a new set of paints. It’s tremendous. If my classroom were struggling and doing this for one night would buy me a tiny bit of relief, I would consider doing it. Parents take their kids to McDonald’s anyway.”

Teacher #2: “Why only target McDonald’s over unhealthy foods? Many schools already have lunch foods that consists of hot dogs, hamburgers and cheese sandwiches that aren’t healthy. We already sell soda pop in school vending machines.”

Teacher #3: “I don’t like it. Teachers are already busy enough. And if it’s fundraising then that’s using free labor for funds that the state should already provide.”

The issues they bring up are real societal problems, and McTeacher’s Nights are only the tip of the supersized iceberg. But before going into the he saids/she saids, let’s talk about McDonald’s itself.

The Golden Arches

The story of McDonald’s can be told with its iconic logo. As explained by this lovingly detailed blog, when founder Ray Kroc reached the “one million hamburgers served” milestone in 1955 at his first franchise in Des Plaines, Illinois, all McDonald's restaurants started boasting their subsequent hamburger milestones on signs sitting under those golden arches. Over the decades, the numbers flicked from “Five Million Hamburgers Served” to one billion to 80 billion. But after its 100 billionth hamburger was served in 1994, McDonald’s execs announced at its annual owner operator convention that all store signs should just say “Billions and Billions Served.”

That’s crucial. On its way to the top of the global fast-food chain—36,000 outlets across 119 countries and 68 million customers daily—McDonald’s sold so many burgers it didn’t feel like keeping count anymore. Today, most McDonald's signs don't mention the number of burgers sold.

McDonald’s isn’t just a burger restaurant in the same way Walmart isn’t just a retail store or Apple isn’t just an electronics company. The $108 billion company is—as the Associated Press described after the restaurant’s half-century birthday—“the face of the fast-food industry, the face of American values and the face of American capitalism itself.”

In short, the vastly different opinions about McTeacher’s Nights arise because some people think McDonald's is the American dream while others consider it a nightmare. To some, Ronald McDonald is a happy clown mascot. To others, he’s the Joe Camel of fast food.

“Would you like fries with that?” is both an honest question or a way to mock a McJob holder struggling on minimum wage. A $1 cheeseburger that’s available in 14,000 locations across the U.S. is a boon to working-class families who can’t afford organic produce or who live in food deserts. At the same time, that cheap cheeseburger is the junk food devil fueling the country’s diabetes and obesity epidemics.

McDonald's is the world’s biggest purchaser of beef, pork, potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes, and the second biggest buyer of chicken after KFC, but that’s not to mention the environmental costs of industrial agriculture and animal welfare issues behind factory farming. The McDonald’s Corporation is “big,” but 80 percent of its stores are owned by franchisees and small business owners, many of whom are facing sales slumps and on the “verge of collapse.”

The whistleblower

The campaign to end McTeacher’s Nights kicked off about a year and a half ago, when Mark Noltner’s daughter brought home from kindergarten a flier for a McTeacher’s Night fundraiser. Noltner, a fourth-grade teacher in Illinois, had never heard of these events but the alarm bells instantly went off.

“As a teacher myself it crossed a lot of ethical boundaries,” Noltner, who doesn’t teach in his daughter’s district, told AlterNet. Teachers are role models for their students, he explained, and McTeacher’s Nights are “another way for McDonald’s to get their foot into schools and attract young consumers.”

Noltner complained to his daughter’s principal and eventually reached out to Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. The mounting pressure on McDonald’s to end McTeacher’s Nights started rolling from there with the National Education Association and dozens of other organizations and nonprofits joining the cause. Last October, the coalition sent an open letter to McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook urging him to “end the exploitative practice of McTeacher’s Nights.”

"It is wrong to enlist teachers to sell kids on a brand like McDonald's, whose core products are burgers, fries and soda,” the letter states. Noltner said his daughter’s school no longer holds the program. “We can raise the same amount of money, if not more, without the help of a huge corporation,” he said.  

The Chicago Teachers Union denounced the programs at a McDonald’s shareholders’ meeting last year on behalf of teachers in McDonald’s own urban school district. “It is wholly inappropriate for McDonald’s to exploit cash-strapped schools to market its junk food brand, while miring its workers in poverty, effectively hollowing out the tax base for our schools,” Jesse Sharkey, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said in a statement.

“In Chicago we face potentially devastating cuts to our schools, yet one of the world’s richest corporations operating in our backyard is exploiting this situation by eroding the school food environment and our students’ health in the long run.”

Serving the community

None of the criticisms about McDonald’s and McTeacher’s Nights are lost on second-generation franchise owner and operator David Bear, whose family has been in the McDonald’s franchise business for 47 years with 21 locations in Illinois. However, “it’s easy to point your fingers at a large target like McDonald’s and say that we’re the cause for a lot of things that are going wrong with our society,” Bear said.

Bear, who owns 16 outlets, said he and his family’s restaurants have hosted hundreds or even thousands of McTeacher’s Nights over the years. “[McTeacher’s Nights] are really a wonderful thing and for [opponents] to say that we’re marketing and profiting off the schools and lead to childhood obesity, I think all those claims are unfounded,” he said.  

“Most of these nights are done by McDonald’s franchise owners like myself, not the corporation. We are people who live in the community and we’re trying to find ways to help back with the school systems, park districts, libraries and all those civic organizations that need additional funding. We try to find ways we could help and McDonald’s is a great avenue to do it because everyone has to eat and we can provide a way for them to do it,” Bear said.  

Julie Travers, who has organized McTeacher’s Nights with Bear, added that many operators lose money from the event because they often need extra crew for support on the night of the event. Operators also pay for the McTeacher’s Night T-shirts that the teachers wear and donate menu items such as apple pies and cookies for teachers to sell. “Everyone talks about how much money the corporation makes and how much the restaurants make. In our restaurants, it’s not a sales-generating event,” Bear said. “This is our civic duty as local entrepreneurs and business people in our communities.”

As for health complaints, Bear noted that McDonald’s has made efforts over the past number of years and the years moving forward to provide clear labels on products and to remove unhealthy content such as saturated fats and sodium from products. Happy Meals, for instance, now have apple slices or “Go-Gurt” as an option. Grilled chicken, oatmeal and egg whites have been added to the overall menu. And last year, the McDonald's Corporation announced it would transition over the next decade to sourcing eggs only from cage-free chickens, a huge win for animal welfare. 

“We’re really doing some phenomenal work to provide people an opportunity not just to provide food that’s indulgent but also food that you feel good about eating,” Bear said. “You can make good healthy choices at McDonald’s.”

Labor woes

Alongside the criticism of McTeacher’s Nights, there’s another dimension at work: labor. Fight For $15, the fast-food workers movement demanding $15 an hour and union rights, has also banded around the cause. As Jose Oliva, the co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance, explained, one reason is that McDonald’s is equating a teacher’s work with fast-food service. “It’s not because food service jobs are less dignified but it creates that image,” he said. “A teacher’s job is obviously to teach and care for children.”

Oliva also accused McDonald’s of lobbying against paid sick day legislation in Chicago. “The people who lobbied the hardest to defeat paid sick day legislation here in Chicago was McDonald’s,” he said. “The same people who are inviting teachers for McTeacher’s Nights are the same ones who are creating an environment that’s not good for families.”

AlterNet’s repeated requests for comment from the McDonald’s Corporation have been unanswered. In responses given to other publications, the company appears to be distancing itself from the events. McDonald's spokeswoman Lisa McComb told the Chicago Tribune that McTeacher’s Nights are franchisee-driven events that are not required, tracked or regulated in any way by the corporation.

"The franchisees are independent business owners," McComb said. "If they feel they want to support their community in this way, they're free to do that." However, she said that some company-owned restaurants hold McTeacher's Night fundraisers that have paid more than $2.5 million to organizations from fundraisers from January 2013 through September 2015.

Curiously, McDonald’s used to advertise the event on its corporate website, but has taken the page offline. In a report about McTeacher’s Nights, the Washington Post pulled a description of the program from the company’s now-defunct McDonald’s Education website.  

Madhousoodanan of Corporate Accountability International said McDonald’s has not engaged directly with McTeacher’s Nights opponents. Campaigners are planning on attending McDonald’s shareholders meeting at the end of the month to raise their concerns.

“I’m not sure how long they can bury their heads in the sand,” Madhousoodanan said.

Lorraine Chow is a freelance writer and reporter based in South Carolina.

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World