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Food-for-grades prize criticized

 

By Mike Hughlett

Chicago Tribune

December 7, 2007

 

In Orlando, good grades can bag elementary students a free McDonald's Happy Meal; in fact, the tasty incentive is promised on their report card envelopes.

But the food-for-A's program has caused a tempest this week, another twist in the fight over marketing food and drinks to children. That fight has been gaining steam as child obesity worries have grown, and as advocacy groups have pushed for legislative curbs on ads aimed at kids.

Earlier this year, about a dozen big American food companies, including Oak Brook-based McDonald's Corp. and Northfield-based Kraft Foods Inc., voluntarily agreed to change their child marketing practices.

As part of the pact, made with the Council of Better Business Bureau, the companies specifically pledged that ads geared toward children under 12 would meet certain nutritional guidelines.

However, the Orlando report card envelope -- which includes an image of Ronald McDonald -- does not appear to fall within the guidelines of the agreement, which goes into effect Jan. 1, said Elaine Kolish, head of the Better Business Bureau's Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

"It would be restricted by our program," she said. Still, she noted that she doesn't think McDonald's as a corporation would have violated its ad pledge. That's because the report card was part of a local initiative by franchisees and some company-owned restaurants.

Bill Whitman, a McDonald's spokesman, said McDonald's is committed to abiding by the pledge and is evaluating the Orlando program, which he said is unique. "I am not aware of any other initiative where there are McDonald's trademarks on report card jackets."

The company has a number of initiatives supporting education throughout the nation, Whitman said. And nine other central Florida counties also offer Happy Meals as rewards for good grades -- but they don't promote them on report card envelopes.

The Florida flap started after Susan Pagan's daughter, Catherine, a 4th grader at Red Bug Elementary School, recently came home with her report card. "She was so excited because she was on honor roll," Pagan said. "She looked at me and said, 'I'm entitled to a reward.'"

Pagan looked at the envelope and saw that students who got all A's and B's, or who had good attendance or citizenship records, were entitled to one Happy Meal, with either a hamburger, cheeseburger or Chicken McNuggets.

"It kind of shook me," Pagan said. "I had to explain to her, we don't eat at these places. I was placed in the position of being the bad guy." She took her concerns to the Seminole County School District, which includes 27,000 elementary school students in the Orlando area.

Bill Vogel, the district's superintendent, said Pagan's was the first such complaint he's heard, even though a similar report card program had been in place for about 10 years. Pizza Hut, which offered a personal pan pizza for good grades, dropped out this year, replaced by McDonald's.

The report card incentive has always been well liked by students, Vogel said. It's also one of many good-grade promotions the school district has with businesses, including a twice-yearly raffle -- for high school students -- of a Ford Mustang provided by a local car dealer.

Because of Pagan's complaint, Vogel said the school district will review the report card program. Pagan also took her beef to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which went to the media.

Susan Linn, a Harvard University professor who heads that advocacy group, said the report card incentive "takes in-school marketing to a new low." The group is calling on McDonald's to end the practice.

 


 

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