We are building a sustainable food system.
Our food campaign demands that McDonald’s and other giant food corporations end their abuses from seed to plate. We organize to champion children’s health, support workers’ rights, and protect the environment. We know a more sustainable food system is both necessary and possible, and you can play an active role in creating it. Read more:
McDonald’s role in our broken food system
From seed to plate, our food system is broken. And it’s up to all of us to fix it.
Here’s the simple fact: A handful of transnational corporations have fundamentally transformed the food we eat, how it is produced, and how we think about food today. These corporations are making our kids sick at staggering rates and devastating the environment for generations to come. Their tactics include:
- Consolidating control over production. The very existence of sustainability-minded family farms is under threat as factory farms take over. Industrial farms pollute our soil and water while the corporations that run them manipulate commodity prices and profit from growing large quantities of food that is making us sick.
- Manufacturing demand for junk foods. Children in the U.S. and globally are bombarded by junk food marketing in every possible venue — online, on TV, even in schools — and often from infancy. And it’s taking a devastating toll on their health. Increasingly, children are suffering from Type 2 diabetes and other diet-related diseases. Experts say this generation may be the first to live shorter lives than their parents.
- Manipulating public policy, at the expense of economic justice and people’s health.
How did we end up here?
Through our strategic analysis, we have identified that McDonald’s is at the rotten core of our broken food system.
No other entity has done more to shape today’s food system. McDonald’s has an unparalleled demand for consistent and cheaply produced commodities. It is the largest buyer of beef, pork, apples, and potatoes in the United States. And with its vast purchasing power and rapid expansion around the world, McDonald’s created strong incentives for corporate consolidation in agriculture, giving rise to Big Agriculture, including Monsanto, ADM, and Cargill.
Case study: potato farming
To see what this looks like, just look at how McDonald’s single-handedly transformed potato farming.
When McDonald’s began, it was buying potatoes from 175 local farms. But founder Ray Kroc found this much too inefficient. He wanted to control the supply, and he wanted uniform potatoes in order to deliver uniform fries.
He chose one supplier, JR Simplot, and Simplot turned potato farming on its head.
Traditionally, potatoes are “dryland” farmed, which means their size, shape, and texture change with the seasonal weather. To grow the potatoes McDonald’s required, Simplot started irrigating its fields. This not only requires an intensive use of water, but also enormous amounts of energy to transport the water. And year after year, potatoes are grown in the same fields (or “monocropped”). This causes the soil to degrade, requiring more chemicals and fertilizers. And these harmful chemicals are then carried into rivers and streams through the irrigation runoff.
The result? A devastating cycle of pollution and environmental degradation.
But, it works for McDonald’s.
By building these enormous, unsustainable potato farms, Simplot crushed the competition. It is now one of the largest privately owned corporations in the world. Today, the supplier will contract with potato growers who irrigate their fields and deliver potatoes with a uniform length, appearance, and color.
So because of the scope of McDonald’s supply chain, chances are that the potato you buy from the grocery store or eat at a restaurant is the same potato that McDonald’s uses for its fries.
An empire built on predatory marketing
The future of our food system begins with our children. McDonald’s, and the junk food industry it spawned, know this only too well. In fact, McDonald’s predatory marketing to children has manufactured unparalleled demand for its burgers, fries, and soda over the last 50 years. From “McTeacher’s Nights” to Happy Meals, McDonald’s aggressive, targeted marketing undermines and circumvents parental authority.
This is no accident: McDonald’s created a strategy to target children from early on. As Ray Kroc explains in his autobiography: “Back in the days when we first got a company airplane, we used to spot good locations for McDonald’s stores by flying over a community and looking for schools … Now we use a helicopter, and it’s ideal.” As a result, in McDonald’s hometown of Chicago, nearly 80 percent of the city’s schools are located within a half mile of a fast food restaurant.
And in low-income communities, McDonald’s franchises have crowded out local grocery stores, flooding commercial districts with junk food offerings. Tanya Fields, executive director of the BLK ProjeK, noted at the 2014 McDonald’s shareholders’ meeting that there were three McDonald’s stores within walking distance of her Bronx home. She called McDonald’s “the biggest alligator in that [food] swamp.”
Targeting children of color
Indeed, fast food corporations explicitly target children and youth of color with their marketing. A study, for example, found Black youth are exposed to 50 percent more advertisements for unhealthy food and drinks than their white peers. McDonald’s even takes aim at black, Asian-American, and Latino youth with race-specific websites like 365Black.com and MeEncanta.com.
Such targeted advertising to children of color is rooted in systemic racism and part of the broader issue of racial health disparities. In particular, the epidemic of diet-related diseases disproportionately affects children of color. Studies show that Black, Latino, Asian-American, and Native American children in the U.S. experience higher rates of obesity and/or diet-related chronic illnesses than their white counterparts.
No wonder parents of color are demanding policies that limit advertising to children. A recent study showed that Black and Hispanic parents perceive greater impact from unhealthy food ads on their children, and the majority support policies that encourage healthy eating for their children.
We are proud to partner with teachers and educators to move industry leader McDonald’s to stop targeting children with predatory marketing. Take action here.
Another tactic in McDonald’s strategy to target children wherever they are is McTeacher’s Nights. At these events, teachers work behind the counter at McDonald’s. They serve burgers and fries to their students to raise money for their schools. The kicker? Schools keep as little as 10 percent — a measly buck and change per student on average.
Corporate Accountability and our allies at Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood have documented over 1,000 McTeacher’s Night events in over 40 states since 2012. These events are designed to give students and families the impression that junk food has teachers’ stamp of approval, which undermines the valuable work that parents, teachers, and administrators do to promote healthy habits for children.
Through these events, McDonald’s exploits cash-strapped schools to market its brand and its fast food to children. Teachers provide free labor, and McDonald’s gets the kind of marketing money can’t buy.
Sound wrong to you? You’re not alone. In partnership with members and allies, Corporate Accountability is waging a campaign to make McTeacher’s Nights a thing of the past. And it’s gaining traction:
- The second-largest school district in the U.S. — L.A. United School District — put a stop to the practice.
- 30,000 people and over 50 teachers unions representing more than 3 million educators have demanded an end to McTeacher’s Nights.
- Educators, parents, and religious leaders have taken the issue directly to McDonald’s annual shareholders’ meeting to hold corporate executives accountable for the abusive practice.
To get involved, visit the Stop McTeacher’s Nights action center.
A false veneer of health
McDonald’s targeting of children in their neighborhoods and in schools goes a long way in enticing them to become life-long customers. But to foster goodwill among parents and health professionals, the fast food giant takes pains to “healthwash” its image and co-opt health institutions.
For example, McDonald’s has exploited charity, in particular the Ronald McDonald House Charities, for more than three decades. The corporation uses its association with these charities to market its junk food brand and garner undeserved brand trust.
But, in 2013, Corporate Accountability released a report that revealed the burger giant’s giving comprises only about one-fifth of the Charities’ funding — and a portion of that actually comes from customer contributions to “donation boxes” in McDonald’s franchises. Thanks to the widespread media coverage of the report’s findings, parents, health professionals, and the public are beginning to understand how McDonald’s uses charity primarily as a marketing and branding vehicle.
McDonald’s also attempts to healthwash its brand by siting franchises in hospitals. Having a McDonald’s store in a hospital creates an illusion of healthfulness for the brand. And, like its stingy exploitation of charity, this is part of the corporation’s comprehensive marketing strategy to sell fundamentally unhealthy products.
Our campaign highlights the obvious: It makes no sense to have McDonald’s in the same place where kids are being treated for diabetes, obesity, and other diet-related diseases. We partner with allies and members across the country to move hospitals to end contracts with McDonald’s.
And it’s working. Since the launch of our campaign, hospital after hospital has ended its contracts with the fast food giant. Today, only 11 hospitals that host a McDonald’s store remain.
Manipulating public policy
In addition to its comprehensive, racist, and predatory marketing strategy, McDonald’s ensures its dominance by wielding influence in the halls of government and manipulating policy.
And one of the corporation’s main vehicles for influence-peddling is the NRA. No, not the National Rifle Association — the other NRA, which also wields incredible political power on Capitol Hill.
The National Restaurant Association is a front group used by corporations like McDonald’s, Yum! Brands (which owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell), and Darden (which owns Olive Garden, the Capital Grille, and LongHorn Steakhouse). These corporations use the other NRA to influence policy in ways that are devastating for our food system, are harming public health, and are keeping millions of food service workers in poverty — for example, by blocking increases to the minimum wage.
That’s why we’ve joined Restaurant Opportunities Centers United in an initiative to hold McDonald’s and other food corporations accountable for manipulating public policy. In 2016, we published a joint report that exposed how the NRA is influencing key votes in Congress. The report also demonstrated how the NRA’s agenda has a negative impact on policies regarding the food system, worker rights, the environment, and public health
Our campaign partners
“When I launched Real Food Media, I chose Corporate Accountability as our partner because I have always been so impressed with the organization’s leadership in taking on some of the most complex, intractable, and urgent issues of our time — and winning. In particular, I was impressed with Corporate Accountability’s approaches to tackling the injustices at the heart of the global food system. I am honored that, through this partnership, I have been able to work shoulder to shoulder with Corporate Accountability toward our shared vision of a world in which all people have access to healthy, sustainably grown, and ethically produced food.”
– Anna Lappé, Founder of Real Food Media
Corporate Accountability is a key player in the growing movement for food justice and sustainable food practices. Through strategic alliances, we are building a public climate that makes it a business liability for McDonald’s, its competitors, and its suppliers to continue abusing public health, workers’ rights, and the environment.
One important partnership is with Real Food Media. Led by Anna Lappé and Christina Bronsing-Lazalde, Real Food Media uses media and storytelling strategies to strengthen the food movement by decoding industry spin, revealing the true costs of industrial food, and showing how — together — we can transform the food system. We partner with them to debunk harmful myths spread by Big Food; to amplify the stories of the people at the heart of the food chain; and to advance Good Food Purchasing Programs in cities across the country.
By dealing directly with the root of the problem—the practices of the largest and single most recognized food corporation—Corporate Accountability is helping to reverse disease rates and transform the food system globally.
Since the launch of our food campaign, we have fundamentally shifted the landscape in which McDonald’s does business. Campaign successes include:
- Half of the hospitals with a McDonald’s on site have shuttered their McDonald’s store.
- Tens of thousands of people, the second-largest school district in the country, and the largest U.S. teachers’ union have all called on McDonald’s to stop McTeacher’s Nights.
- The campaign has reached hundreds of millions of people in every corner of the globe, with thousands of news stories appearing in outlets from USA Today to ABC News to NPR.
- McDonald’s slashed spending on Happy Meals marketing.
- McDonald’s has rolled out multiple expensive and ineffective efforts to increase sales and improve its image.
Fired up about challenging McDonald’s and Big Food? Ready to help build a just, sustainable food system? Here are a few of the many ways you can advance food justice:
- Demand that McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook to stop marketing junk food to children.
- Read more about how McDonald’s manipulates charity to healthwash its brand.
- Learn how Big Food influences key votes in Congress.
- If you’re an educator, introduce a policy at your union local to stop McTeacher’s Nights. Contact us at info@CorporateAccountability.org to learn how.
- If you’re a parent, bring this pledge to your parent-teacher association and get them to commit to stopping junk food marketing in your school district.