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McDonalds, Cheeseburgers, & Charity
N ovember 20, 2003 was World Children’s Day at McDonald’s. “Save the date to help the world’s children” was the campaign slogan and this year’s event was backed by Justin Timberlake and Venus and Serena Williams. Thousands of McDonald’s restaurants in more than 100 countries geared up for this annual cheeseburger and charity event.
World Children’s Day was the name given to last year’s Kofi Annan and UNICEF endorsed McDonald’s “history-making fundraising initiative,” created to help disadvantage children worldwide with money raised by Big Mac and Egg McMuffin sales and the like. World Children’s Day is also a trademark of McDonald’s and, by some happy accident, happens to fall on the anniversary of the UN adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. “McDonald’s is proud to invite the world into our restaurants to help children everywhere,” says McDonald’s chair and CEO Jim Cantalupo, adding, “Through this annual event, we continue our tradition of giving back and helping those in need. With our 30,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries, McDonald’s is uniquely positioned to reach millions of children who need our help.”
Geoff Rayner, chair of the UK Public Health Association (UKP- HA), which promotes the development of policy in the public health sector, is dismissive of Cantalupo’s assertion that McDonald’s is the best place to go to help the world’s children. “Mr. Cantaloupo apparently wants to make giving to worthwhile causes conditional upon first having visited a McDonald’s fast food outlet,” he says. “This is a quite inappropriate link between charity and commercial activity and should be opposed by all parents who are concerned both about rising dietary related disease and overconsumption in the rich world and the underconsumption and poor health conditions in the developing world.”
It’s hard to see what exactly McDonald’s is uniquely positioned or best placed to offer the world’s millions of needy children, other than a quick route to obesity in its 30,000 plus restaurants in over 100 countries. Ken Barun, the president and CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities (the usual sole beneficiary of money raised), claims in the corporate PR puff promoting the big day, “The beauty of World Children’s Day is the simplicity by which people everywhere can help children. Every visit to a participating McDonald’s restaurant to purchase select items on this day helps us continue our mission of directly improving the health and well being of children worldwide.”
Don’t worry, you read right. He really did say “our mission of directly improving the health and well being of children worldwide.” Sadly for McDonald’s, a great many health professionals do not agree with Barun’s lofty claims. Last year a group of more than 50 health academics and professionals from around the world wrote an open letter to UNICEF, calling on the organization to withdraw its support for the McDonald’s-backed day, claiming that the partnership opposed the charity’s supposed aims: “McDonald’s is a global leader in the marketing of junk food that is creating soaring rates of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes, and that is disrupting traditional ways of food preparation in families and cultures. It is truly a challenge to see how this partnership with McDonald’s is consistent with UNICEF’s claim to promote ‘good nutrition’ to the world’s children.”
Announcing last year’s heavily criticized partnership, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said, “We are very pleased that McDonald’s is expanding its support for children around the world. The opportunity…will help us reach a whole new generation of children whose parents supported UNICEF when they were kids.” This is the same UNICEF director who previously warned of the catastrophic effects of jumping into bed with big business.
The World Health Organization has identified obesity as a global problem, citing the alarming statistic that over 300 million people are now obese. Reading his 1997 judgment in the infamous McLibel trial brought by McDonald’s against London Greenpeace anti-McDonald’s leafleters Dave Morris and Helen Steel, the Honorable Justice Bell said, “…the sting of the leaflet to the effect that the Plaintiffs exploit children by using them, as more susceptible subjects of advertising, to pressurize their parents into going to McDonald’s is justified. It is true.” (In his two hour summing up, Justice Bell also found that the two McLibel defendants had shown that McDonald’s falsely advertised its food as nutritious and did indeed risk the health of long-term regular customers.)
McDonald’s annual appropriation of World Children’s Day shows that some lessons are never learned or are just better marketed. McDonald’s might proudly point to the more than $12 million was raised in 24 hours last year, but, while the charitable endeavor may be of value, the association with a fast food company is appalling. Rayner suggests giving money directly to bona fide charities in the developing world as a more worthwhile alternative to bolstering an already huge corporation’s public relations stock.
“We’re not asking you to give money, we’re asking you to eat at McDonalds,” said Canadian singer Celine Dion at last year’s event, with a disarming honesty, which has thus far evaded McDonald’s management. The World Children’s Day at McDonald’s slogan “save the date to help the world’s children” should add the words “become fat” or “swell McDonald’s coffers” and they'd be somewhere nearer the truth.
William MacDougal contributes to a number of publications, including Counterpunch, Outlook India, and Red Pepper, among others.
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