The booths at the South Burlington McDonald's earlier today were filled with a typical smattering of lunch customers: two businesswomen, a pair of teenagers, a soldier and a few families. In their midst was a toddler in a high chair, her tiny hands manuevering a hamburger and picking at some French fries.
There was nothing striking about the scene. Yet some pediatricians and nutritionists would shudder at the sight of a toddler surrounded by salt and fat. Among them, Jennifer Laurent.
"I am concerned with the future health of these children," says Laurent, president of the Vermont Nurse Practitioner's Association and an obesity researcher in UVM's department of nursing. Fatty fast foods are one of the tendrils feeding a childhood-obesity epidemic that Laurent sees firsthand. "To have a 12-year-old come in with concerned parents because their child is morbidly obese is heart wrenching," she says. "He can't go out and play because he can't keep up. He gets a headache when he exerts himself. He is bullied."
And he could be the one in three children who will develop diabetes in their lifetime, she points out. So, when Laurent was approached to be one of the 1,500 signatories to an open letter to McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner, urging his company to axe "predatory marketing" to children, she jumped at the chance. "We ask that you heed our concern and retire your marketing promotions for food high in salt, fat, sugar and calories to children, whatever form they take — from Ronald McDonald to toy giveaways," reads the letter, which ran today in the Portland (Ore.) Tribune and will appear in the Burlington Fress Press on Monday.
The letter, part of a campaign dubbed "Value [the] Meal", was first published in May, when it was signed by 550 prominent pediatricians, cardiologists, nutritionists and other clinicians. They targeted McDonald's alone, though other fast-food chains, such as Burger King, took notice. In June, McDonald's announced that they would downsize French fry portions inside Happy Meals and also offer apple slices in their stead. For health-care providers, though, it was a diversionary move: No matter how many apple slices McDonald's stuffs inside their Happy Meals, the underhanded marketing continues.
"It was a good first step, but they're using it as a PR move to hide that they have done nothing to stop marketing their brands to children," says Sriram Madhusoodanan, the national campaign organizer for Corporate Accountability International, who is organizing the push. "It's just another way to get more people into the store to sell more of their bread and butter, which are burgers, fries and soda."
Can Ronald McDonald and the occasional happy meal really be so sinister? A $3.95 cheeseburger Happy Meal purchased at a local McDonald's (inside a cheery pumpkin bucket) with all of the healthful options — apples instead of fries, and apple juice instead of soda — has 495 calories, 42 grams of sugar and about a third of the recommended daily sodium intake. It also has about 13 grams of fat. Not arresting numbers on their face, but they don't exactly connote a healthy meal, either. And children can't always be convinced to forego fries and soda, as many parents know.
Research from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity shows that the roughly $400 million that McDonald's spends each year marketing these meals to kids translates to 40 percent of parents fielding weekly requests from their children to go to McDonald's, and two thirds of parents doing just that. And an affection for McDonald's borne in childhood can blossom into a lifelong love affair with fast food, with dire consequences.
By running the letter locally, the group hopes to reach Peter Napoli, who owns more McDonald's franchises in the country than anyone else — he has 100 throughout New England. They're also capitalizing on Vermont support for the campaign — the 100 local signatories include the Vermont Public Health Association and researchers at UVM.
Phoned for a reaction, the Napoli Group issued a written response. "McDonald’s does not advertise unhealthy food to children. We are committed to responsible advertising and take it very seriously," it read. "We are listening to what really matters to our customers and we’re offering more choice and variety than ever before. Our menu continues to evolve to meet their changing needs and our job is never done."
Laurent and her cosigners hope to see signs of that evolution. "I see the human toll of fast food and fast-food marketing every day," she said in a statement. "I diagnose children and adolescents with pre-diabetes, fatty liver, and depression related to their weight."
Childhood obesity has shown to shorten a life span by nine years, she added. That's roughly the same effect that smoking has on people. "What are we going to do when we have 30-year-olds who have these problems, like sleep apnea, diabetes and liver problems? With already strained health-care resources, how are we going to take care of these people?"