Monday, March 5, 2012


Right now, at the McDonalds near our home, cash registers are bleeping away in honor of my son's elementary school and "McTeacher Night," wherein the school administrators and educators stand behind the counter to sling food at their young pupils so that a measly 10% of sales from the night might be gifted back to the academy. Don't mistake this for philanthropy on the part of McDonalds. This is just one more insidious way for junk food advertisers to infiltrate the schools and reinforce habits that harm kids.

Schools have become integral to the marketing plans of a vast array of corporations, and we have now ingrained the idea that public schools exist for private profit. Corporate motives are easy enough to discern. Not only do these marketers prefer to capture the youngest of consumers so as to instill brand loyalties, but this kind of "philanthropy" softens markets to the presence of industries demonized in the wake of an obesity epidemic amongst children. Parents, for their part, are happy to oblige by lining-up for the cheap eats. After all, Americans spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software or new cars. Every month more than 90 percent of American children eat at McDonald's, and the average American eats three hamburgers and four orders of french fries every week. The World Health Organization announced in the summer that a ban on junk food marketing aimed at kids would be a major point of discussion when the United Nations meets in September. The WHO estimates that 43 million preschoolers worldwide are overweight or obese.

When it comes to the state, Colorado has a long history of allowing corporate "sponsorships" to cover shortfalls in school districts' budgets: "Whether it's first graders learning to read or teenagers shopping for their first car, we can guarantee an introduction of your product and your company to these students in the traditional setting of the classroom," reads one chilling brochure for a Kids Power Marketing Conference. Fast-food companies are at the leading edge of this new marketing strategy, placing not just hallway ads and banners in schools but also targeted, branded educational materials in classrooms, produced with tax-deductible dollars. This is where the fundraising really comes into play, and with the support of the PTO and administrators alike.

The quick retort to this is the resonate claim that public schools need more money, and corporate sponsorships provide a necessary revenue source when public tax monies fall short. This, despite the fact that public schools are rolling in money. If you divide the U.S. Department of Education's figure for total spending on K-12 education by the department's count of K-12 students, it works out to about $10,000 per pupil. That's more than the funding allotted school systems in any other country, and yet the US lags far behind in academic performance. A study by two professors at the Hoover Institution a few years ago compared public and Catholic schools in three of New York City's five boroughs. Parochial education outperformed the nation's largest school system "in every instance," they found -- and it did it at less than half the cost per student.

All that aside, the question is not so much one of "do schools need more funds" but, rather, "is this an appropriate mechanism by which to finance the objective?" Are you willing to commercialize your kid, support a morally dubious industry and feed your child synthetic edibles designed to re-train their palate and make them fat so as to buy, say, a new load of textbooks or nicer football uniforms? Uh, no.

The good news is that my kids know Real Food from McCrap. My daughter would be appalled if I so much as insinuated that we ought to participate in McTeacher night because she has been subject to the kind of nutrition education and food lifestyle that differentiates not just "healthy" and "unhealthy," but "quality" versus "garbage." Her school tends a lovely organic garden, and feeds children fresh foods that exceed Whole Foods Market criteria for quality and sustainability. At home, we don't eat food wrapped in trash, slung at us in seconds and treated with ammonia-based pellets to remove the danger of e.coli poisoning. Our food comes from a guy named Mark, who operates a CSA north of town, and has a degree in water engineering from the University of Colorado. We've met his wife, Nuvia, and my daughter is in love with his sweet red-headed child, Coral. We pick up our shipment and unpack it with care, sampling fresh, whole food and deciding what next to cook. It's a process. An event. It's about community and breaking bread and nourishing body and spirit.

The school will have to sell someone else's kid, I guess. And really, that's the point. The point, of course, is that you cannot remove from the sphere of influence this sort of commercialization and food choice. Parents have to be willing to set the bar higher than the status quo. Parents have to decide that their child will not be among the 90% eating fast food this month...this year. The schools will be just fine.

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