Last month, I had the incredible experience of working with the Qatar Foundation to explore solutions for childhood nutrition in Qatar. It was an exhausting and inspiring experience, but flying home, I came across something that took the wind out of my sails.
I was reading a U.K. magazine and came across a beautiful, full-color, full-page ad of a small child lying on the ground and playing with her toy cows in a bucolic setting. The grass was lush, the leaves on the nearby bushes were shiny and green was the predominant color. It was an enticing and comforting image. "Hello to the beef farmers of tomorrow" was confidently splayed across the page in a large, white font. And up in the left-hand corner was a red square with the ubiquitous golden arches.
[Read: Has Fast Food Become Healthier?]
I had come across – and almost had fallen victim to – McDonald's latest ad campaign in the U.K., one that uses children and toys and the green movement to convince folks that its food is "high quality." A similar campaign in Finland uses an agricultural setting, children, jump ropes and trampolines to claim that its milkshakes are "real."
Given the recent focus on the childhood obesity epidemic in the U.S., it's easy to forget that fast food chains – the biggest violators of children's nutrition – are global and have billions to spend on advertising to convince parents and children that high-fat, nutrient-poor food produced through environmentally-destructive practices is just fine, thank you, so here, have another burger.
The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity released its 2013 Fast Food FACTS (Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score) for the U.S., and the data are eye-opening. In 2012:
• Fast food restaurants spent a total of $4.6 billion on advertising in the U.S. (compared to the $116 million spent to advertise all fruits and vegetables);
• Preschoolers saw 1,023 fast-food ads – or 2.8 fast-food ads per day; and
• McDonald's display ads for Happy Meals increased 63 percent to 31 million ads monthly, most of them appearing on kids' websites such as Nick.com, Roblox.com and CartoonNetwork.com.
[See: A Look at 'Fast Food FACTS 2013'.]
There are some positive trends: The increase in healthy side options like apples and low-fat milk; the discontinuation of some child-targeted websites by McDonalds, Burger King and Dairy Queen (though there's still HappyMeal.com); and a commitment by McDonald to stop promoting soda as a beverage option for its Happy Meals.
But given that 1 percent of all kids' meal combinations – 33 out of 5,427 – meet recommended nutrition standards, it's safe to say that most fast-food chains are making their profits at the cost of our children's health.
Another study from Griffith University in Australia shows that fast food advertising intensifies during the holidays on the Gold Coast. While we all like to picture the holidays as warm scenes of family and friends around a table covered with carefully-prepared, home-cooked dishes, the truth is that people spend much of the holiday season on the road shopping and traveling, and fast-food restaurants know this.
It's hard to be vigilant about the food our children are eating when we've got presents to wrap and that last-minute Secret Santa present to buy for the company party. We can't be on top of the media our children are consuming every minute, but it's good to remind ourselves that fast-food advertising is pervasive, global and very resourceful. But so are parents and advocates for children's health.
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Chef Ann Cooper is a celebrated author, chef, educator and enduring advocate for better food for all children. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Ann has been a chef for more than 30 years, over 15 of those in school food programs. Her books, Bitter Harvest and Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, established her as a leading advocate for safe, sustainable food. Known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann has been honored by The National Resources Defense Council, selected as a Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellow and awarded an honorary doctorate from SUNY Cobleskill for her work on sustainable agriculture. In 2009, Ann founded Food Family Farming Foundation (F3), a nonprofit focusing on solutions to the school food crisis. F3's pivotal project is The Lunch Box, a web portal that provides free and accessible tools, recipes and resources to support school food reform.