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Wednesday, May 18, 2011, 1:58 pm

New Public Health Campaign Aims to End Ronald McDonald’s Career

By Candice Bernd

CHICAGO—Should Ronald McDonald be forced to retire? A new national campaign—“Value [the] Meal”—aims to do just that, with the larger goal of sparking action by McDonald’s shareholders to protect kids from junk food marketing.

Wednesday morning, the Boston-based nonprofit Corporate Accountability International (CAI), in conjunction with prominent health professionals—including President Obama’s family physician of 20 years and Patch Adams—the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition and medical research institutions, detailed their case against McDonald’s at Chicago’s Greater Humboldt Park Community Diabetes Empowerment Center.

During the press conference, readers of New York Metro, The Boston Metro, The San Francisco Examiner, Baltimore City Paper, The Minneapolis City Pages and the Chicago Sun-Times might have come across full-page “Value [the] Meal” campaign ads. The ad displays an open letter to McDonald’s CEO Jim Skinner signed by more than 550 health professionals and institutions to change the burger giant’s marketing practices.

“Needless to say this common sense appeal from our nation’s health community should be a wake-up call to McDonald’s to change course, to move beyond its empty promises to decrease its burden on kids and their caretakers and to actually commit to stop bombarding our kids with junk food marketing,” Value [the] Meal Director Deborah Lapidus said.

Events held across the nation were coordinated to pressure the corporation on the eve of their annual shareholders’ meeting to be held outside Chicago at the company’s headquarters tomorrow (May 19). The sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia along with 13 other institutional investors and CAI will propose a resolution at the meeting calling on McDonald’s to examine how grassroots campaigns and new government regulations to combat child obesity have affected the corporation’s bottom line.

Lapidus said that McDonalds’s executives are advocating a “no vote” on this resolution and that a number of smaller shareholders will likely follow their advice, because corporations’ executives and board members tend to skew the outcome of shareholders’ resolutions. However, even a 3-5 percent vote by shareholders in favor of the resolution would be a “huge success,” she said.

During the past year, the Federal Trade Commission and the World Health Organization have come out with stricter guidelines and recommendations regarding ad campaigns that involve marketing junk food to children. Public opinion on the issue of childhood obesity is beginning to shift, with New York tightening the rules for toy giveaways in kid’s meals and San Francisco’s Healthy Meal Budget Ordinance, which McDonald’s spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to defeat.

“We feel this corporation and its competitors needn’t wait for an act of Congress, another city ordinance, or another child to develop diabetes to stop treating the next generation like dollar signs at the expense of their health,” Executive Director of the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition Esther Sciammarella said Wednesday.

Sciammarella said that the impacts of fast food are felt disproportionately in Latino and Hispanic communities, in places like Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, a mostly Latino community where 50 percent of children and adolescents are overweight.

But it’s not just marketing to children that impacts poor and minority communities—it’s marketing to adults as well. With burgers for $1, value meals through the window are becoming the cheapest and easiest source of nutrition for busy working-class families.

“We at the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition also understand parental responsibility to mean something other than what McDonald’s would have it mean,” Sciammarella said. “Since parents, especially the working parents who live in food deserts like Humboldt Park, don’t raise children in a bubble, parental responsibility has long been the act of not only guiding our children’s food choices, but ensuring the food landscape they grow-up in is not a toxic one.”

Sciammarella said we should begin to go beyond food subsidies that support cheaper food, like McDonald’s $1 burgers, and educate consumers as consumers to build a better food infrastructure.

The campaign coalition points out that child obesity continues to rise, even as studies by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Yale Rudd Center conclude that children are exercising at the rates similar to those of two decades ago and that no data has been found to support a breakdown in parental responsibility, as McDonald’s often claims. A major culprit, according to CAI and others: junk food marketed to children.

McDonald’s spends more than $400 million a year marketing junk food to young people. Retired Physician Don Ziegler said the company acknowledged in 2006 that marketing junk food to kids was wrong and voluntarily pledged to reduce it. But since then, the company has increased its marketing to kids and deflected the issue altogether.

“No one would call into question the worthiness of Ronald McDonald houses and charity, but they’re used as a public-relations vehicle under the guise of social responsibility for deflecting criticism and attention to its very real contribution to today’s very real global public health crisis,” Ziegler said.

Candice Bernd is a summer 2011 Web intern for In These Times. She has co-hosted The Rational Radio Report with Jack Bishop on 1360 AM, KMNY, and written for Z magazine, Left Turn magazine and Truth-out.

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