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I’ve been thinking all week that I need to write about San Francisco’s crackdown on Happy Meal toys. But what to say? News of the decision spread fast, generating the predictable “McDonald’s-is-evil” vs. “parents-get-a-backbone” debate. And, really, my opinion on fast-food marketing hasn’t changed since I wrote about the Retire Ronald campaign in April.

I still think the answer is twofold: Of course corporations should stop preying on kids. Of course they should be held accountable. And the sooner they back off, the easier it will be for parents and kids to make good choices. But our kids are kids now. They might not be in 10 years, or even five years. While we wait out the creaky wheels of progress, parents need to, well, parent.

So it didn’t seem like I had much to add.

Then I saw this. It’s a story about  a school in Connecticut that took a field trip to a local McDonald’s for  a workshop. A nutrition workshop. And while the sixth-graders were there, they assembled their own hamburgers. And while they assembled their hamburgers, they reflected on what they’d learned. Which was, in the words of one 11-year-old: “that McDonald’s can be very healthy for you if you make the right choices.”

There are so many things wrong with that paragraph that I’m sort of stumbling all over myself here. But let’s start with the obvious: A school took kids to a McDonald’s for advice on nutrition.

Gail Grant, the McDonald’s rep who leads these workshops (here’s another one from March), preaches a “read, then eat” mantra. That sounds great until you realize she’s talking about reading a menu item’s nutrition facts, which yields nothing more than the calories-sodium-fat-carbs equation. Forget about good vs. bad fats (and carbs) and chemical additives and factory-farmed meat. Nope. So long as the numbers add up, the ingredients don’t matter!

But of course they do. So when she wraps up her presentation with a “now you know what you’re eating” statement, well, I’d have to say no, no the kids really don’t know what they’re eating. No matter how you dress it up or trim it down, most McDonald’s food just isn’t good for us, “choices” or not.

Here’s where “everything in moderation” gets stuck on auto-play. But, as I seem to be repeating myself lately, “moderation” is a ruse — a buzzword used by food marketers and industry-influenced dietitians to sell stuff we probably shouldn’t be eating in the first place. (And let’s face it: “Moderation” is relative.) As reader Judy said in a comment yesterday about Halloween candy: “It’s like saying you’ll take healthy in moderation.” Yes, it’s just like that.

I know there are people who think we should cut McDonald’s some slack. It’s one company. People should eat what they please. It’s America and all that. But here’s the thing: As I wrote in April, McDonald’s has done more to industrialize and homogenize the U.S. food system than any other company. It buys so much beef, pork, potatoes and other commodities (even apples) that it controls everything from the way animals are treated and food is processed to which produce varieties are grown (not many). That kind of power calls for some serious accountability.

So when McDonald’s conducts nutrition workshops, or provides schools with branded “educational” materials, coupons for good grades and fundraising opportunities tied to store sales, then Happy Meal toys seem like the least of our problems. (And I haven’t even mentioned the summer camps McDonald’s runs in the Philippines.)

At least the toys’ motives are clear. This other stuff? This McDonald’s version of “education”? That’s far more insidious.

Thoughts? Arguments? Rants?

Hat tip to school-food reformer Susan Rubin for the lead on the Connecticut story.

Update on November 9: Nice timing. Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity yesterday released a comprehensive study showing that fast-food kids’ meals are, in fact, seriously nutritionally deficient. (And that’s by government dietary-guidelines standards. Imagine the problems they’d find if they looked at ingredients.) I put up a separate post with details and links: “This just in: Fast food is unhealthy.”


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