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Super-Sized Food Industry Targets Families
Fast food, family values, the Christian right and the Bush Administration
by Bill Berkowitz
March 19, 2005

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I know I'm late to the party, but last weekend I finally saw Morgan Spurlock's Academy Award-nominated film, Supersize Me.

The Conceit: Morgan Spurlock, a reasonably healthy young man, decides to get his three squares for thirty days only at McDonalds. He samples everything on the menu at least once during the month-long feed-fest. He "super-sizes" his meals when asked. He has a team of doctors -- including a nutritionist, a fitness expert, and his very Vegan and very supportive girlfriend -- monitoring his condition.

The Expectation: Gain a little weight; maybe feel a little weird, but essentially, no harm, no foul -- to mix a little bit of March Madness in with this McDonald's odyssey. Career-wise, Spurlock perhaps hopes to spin this Michael Moore-like muckraking effort into more documentaries, a bit of fame, a few sheckles, and a Reality TV program.

The Result: Spurlock's health takes a major nose dive: He gains weight; his cholesterol soars; his liver takes a hit; he experiences drastic mood swings.

The Kids: More shocking than discovering that there are 965 McDonalds -- okay so I'm exaggerating a little (there are a little over 80) -- on the island of Manhattan, is the realization that America's kids are becoming fast food junkies. Not to mention rampant obesity, increased type-II diabetes and all sorts of attention deficit problems in school and out. The scene where several children are easily able to identify Ronald McDonald, but unaware of either Jesus Christ or George Washington was especially enlightening.

The Grim Reaper: Here are some sobering statistics collected by columnist Curt Gabrielson, a Watsonville, California physicist who runs the Watsonville Environmental Science Workshop:

* “Several sources say that around two-thirds of U.S. adults and around 15 percent of children and adolescents are overweight. A study from the University of California showed that one-third of California's African-American and Latino children are overweight. Less than 10 percent of us come close to following the five federal Food Guide Pyramid recommendations for the intake of grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meats.

* “Around 50 percent of all Americans get no significant exercise. Meanwhile, teachers and administrators routinely skip PE class in favor of academic requirements.

* “Seventy-seven percent of California students tested in 2001 flunked the state's physical fitness test, while a California Department of Education study in 2002 found that students' academic achievement is closely related to their levels of health-related physical fitness.

* “Each year, U.S. kids watch an average 10,000 commercials for fast food, sugared cereal, candy, soft drinks and unhealthy snacks. Supersize Me points out that if parents ate each meal with their children and counseled them each time on the importance of healthy food that would add up to only about 1,000 times per year.

* “Excess weight is the second leading cause of preventable death in America, and it's fast becoming No. 1. Still, there are very few marketing restrictions on companies selling junk food to our kids.

Arguments for Fast Food: Americans love choices; more choices mean a better quality of life. Fast food restaurants provide choices. Fast food is also convenient and inexpensive. Dinner at a fast food joint may even be entertaining in a glazed-over, people watching kind of way.

Arguments Against Fast Food: Americans are becoming the fattest people on the face of the Earth -- maybe even the fattest in the history of the Earth. Heart disease and liver disease are running rampant. The American health care industry is unable to mop up the mess. We're using up the earth's resources feeding all the cattle. Chemicals are taking root inside our bodies and are playing our colons like pin ball machines. American kids are getting hooked on fast food.

The Disclosure: Growing up in New York City, fast food restaurants were called cafeterias or Kosher Delicatessens. When a friend learned to drive, we'd occasionally drop by a White Castle outlet for a herd of what we affectionately called “hambombers”; at 12 cents a pop they were irresistible! While at Kansas University in Lawrence, Kansas, my academic pursuits were occasionally sustained by a trip to Griff's or Burger Chef. The very day I arrived in California in the mid-Seventies I stopped by a McDonalds. A decade later, in a hurry to make it to a PTA meeting at my daughter's grade school, we stopped off at a Wendy's for dinner. On the way home from work during my last few months at the DataCenter at the dawn of this new century, I'd occasionally stop off at McDonald's and order two McChicken sandwiches to go. Last year, I took my 12-year-old granddaughter to a fast food joint on more than one (but not more than five) occasion[s]; her favorite place was “Mickey Dees.” Finally, I have tasted (in my adolescence) but never drank a soda.

The Naysayers: Where there are sayers -- the film is “fantastic”, “frightening” -- there are going to be naysayers: It's not surprising that Supersize Me has come under a pretty heavy attack. Critics have called Spurlock a crass opportunist and a dishonest documentarian. The film has been attacked by the fast food industry, and by some on the right -- libertarians I suspect -- for what they perceive to be the film's liberal elitist Hillary Clinton-like, I-know-what's-best-for-you mentality.

The Counterpoint: A few stories like this have appeared in the press: Lee Sayer, a teacher in Edmonton, Canada, ate at McDonald's for thirty days and lost 17 pounds. Unlike Spurlock, Sayer exercised regularly and vigorously.

The Bush Administration: What is the so-called family-friendly Bush Administration doing about all this? According to a recent article by Gary Ruskin and Jonathan Rowe, the Bush Administration is asleep at the wheel. Ruskin, the executive director of Commercial Alert, a Portland, Ore-based non-profit pro-parents' rights organization that he co-founded with Ralph Nader in 1998, and Rowe, a well-known author and journalist, were astonished to discover that Tommy Thompson, the former secretary of health and human services, had "actually stood before the Grocery Manufacturers Association -- the main lobby for the junk food industry -- and urged them to 'go on the offensive' against critics. By that he means people who think parents, and not corporations, should guide the eating habits of children."

According to Ruskin and Rowe, in his State of the Union address President Bush pledged to “do what Americans have always done, and build a better world for our children and our grandchildren. If the president really means what he says, he might start by expelling junk food from the nation's public schools, and instructing his Federal Trade Commission to tell the junk food marketers to butt out of the relationship between parents and their kids.”

The Christian Right: While certainly not one of their “top-tier issues,” several Christian right organizations -- including Focus on the Family, the American Family Association and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, have partnered up with Commercial Alert (CA) in a broad-based coalition to fight against Channel One. According to Commercial Alert's Web site, Channel One “delivers two minutes of advertising and ten minutes of ‘news,’ banter and fluff to captive audiences of about eight million students in 12,000 schools across the country.”

In addition, “When we released the Parents' Bill of Rights," CA's Gary Ruskin told me in a telephone interview, "we received a considerable amount of time on Christian radio stations.”

Changes at McDonalds? Has the attendant buzz surrounding the success of Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me spurred changes at “Mickey Dees?” According to Business Week's David Kiley, the company recently kicked off a company makeover -- perhaps not an extreme makeover, but a makeover nevertheless. They've introduced some healthier products and a series of advertisements about fitness whose theme is “It's what I eat and what I do... I'm loving it.” Tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams front the ads which place eating salads and getting substantial exercise front and center. Gary Ruskin warned that this new campaign is more than likely another “way of selling their products” by making it “look like they're not selling their products.”

The Challenge: The fast food industry and its posse -- the lobbyists, advertising agencies and well-positioned public relations firms -- have been conducting its own “shock and awe” campaign aimed at kids. The campaign features wall-to-wall advertising on children's television programming. Can these trends be reversed?

Helping Parents Help Kids: Commercial Alert thinks so. The non-profit group is working to “keep the commercial culture within its proper sphere, and to prevent it from exploiting children and subverting the higher values of family, community, environmental integrity and democracy.”

You can sign on to Commercial Alert's Parents' Bill of Rights, a campaign aimed at getting the U.S. Congress and our fifty state legislatures to “right the balance between parents and corporations and restore to parents some measure of control over commercial influences on their children.” Included in the Bill of Rights' aims: a federal ban on “television advertising aimed at children under 12”; “restore to parents the ability to safeguard the privacy of their own children”; pass a federal law forcing corporations to disclose “who created” the advertisements aimed at their children and where the “market research” for the ads came from; pass federal and state laws prohibiting corporations “from using the schools and compulsory school laws to bypass parents and pitch their products to impressionable schoolchildren”; and legislation providing a Fairness Doctrine for Parents allowing them equal broadcast time to rebut advertisements aimed at children 12 and younger.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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