I’ve always been uncomfortable with for-profit companies trying to work their way into public schools in order to polish their image and make money. During the twenty-five years I taught English at Hinsdale South High School, my annual rants about all sophomores being pulled from their classes so that Jostens could try to sell them rings caused many of my colleagues to roll their eyes. And I still maintain that holding an all-class assembly during school time so that a company can try to make money off students is reprehensible. Having a table outside the cafeteria so students can investigate rings during their lunch periods? Fine, but sacrificing learning time for a sales pitch? It shouldn’t happen. Ever. Maybe my loud pronouncements that I would refuse to bring my classes to this commercial was the reason I had sophomores only one year during my entire time at South. Regardless and unfortunately, my guess is this is still happening (I retired in 2012); however, my purpose here is to sound the alarm about a more subtle yet just as questionable technique commercial forces use to try to worm their way into our kids’ minds and wallets with school districts’ blessings: the sponsored assembly.
The most recent instance of this is the ex-science teacher who conducted an “experiment” to see if he could lose weight eating nothing but McDonald’s for 90 days. This man, John Cisna, is now traveling around the country, making presentations and showing a film which documents his experiment as well as the additional 90 days he continued to eat nothing but McDonald’s. He also has a book out, My McDonald’s Diet. To read a more detailed account of his process as well as viewing the 20-minute video Cisna is now showing during his presentations (540 Meals: Choices Make the Difference), check out this excellent MTV news (Who knew?) story which you can find here.
Not surprisingly, McDonald’s is funding Cisna’s travels as well as paying him to be a “Brand Ambassador” for the company, and he has given up teaching. So, clearly, Mickey D sees what Cisna is doing as something beneficial to the company. Regardless of what other rationalizations they make, there can be no disputing this; McDonald’s has hired Cisna to go around to schools in order to enhance McDonald’s corporate image, at least in part. And it has every right to do so: Cisna has a positive message about his experience with the fast-food giant which could help increase sales, so why wouldn’t McDonald’s sign on to his road show? Nobody is suggesting, at least here, that Cisna doesn’t have every right to cash in on his experiment.
But schools don’t have to and should never allow Cisna to make his presentation to students during school time. The argument that Cisna makes in his video as well as other interviews is that his experiment isn’t about promoting McDonald’s at all, but instead is about how people’s choices influence their health. If we make better choices, he explains, then we can eat whatever we want so long as we understand how to select the right blend of calories, nutrients, and exercise to facilitate what we pick. In the experiment, Cisna and three students carefully calculated how many calories a day he would consume (2,000), which items he would eat at McDonald’s for that day, and how he would exercise for 45 minutes in addition to his normal routines. And in the first 90 days, Cisna dropped 37 pounds off his ample 280-pound frame. This is in direct contrast to the 2004 documentary, Super Size Me, where Morgan Spurlock also ate nothing but McDonald’s for a mere 30 days and saw all aspects of his health deteriorate as well as gaining 24 pounds.
Without getting into the nutritional battle about all this (which is raging and about which you can read a detailed analysis in the MTV article), I’m not disputing that if you choose carefully, limit portion sizes, and exercise every day—all of which seem beyond the capabilities of roughly two-thirds of overweight Americans—you could lose weight eating only McDonald’s. There’s no doubt that you probably would struggle to get the 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables that most experts recommend, but with exercise and a rigid adherence to caloric intake, you would probably be okay, at least for a while. Long term? Well, Cisna did it for half a year, hardly useful in determining the diet’s impact on his longevity. It would be possible, however, to replicate his results, I’m pretty sure.
That doesn’t mean schools should hold assemblies during school time to have young, impressionable minds hear how great it is to eat nothing but McDonald’s all the time (or Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, Hardee’s, Wendy’s, Quizno’s, Steak ‘n Shake, Arby’s, Sonic, or any of the dozens other fast food restaurants that saturate our streets). The “choices” theme is a worthwhile concept for our kids to digest, but there are so many other better, less risky ways to get that message across without indirectly endorsing a product that poses so many health problems if abused. Sure, Cisna ate egg whites and salads much of the time, but a typical meal ordered at McDonald’s consists of hamburgers, fries, and pop/milk shakes, none of which are “good” parts of young people’s diets. And even if McDonald’s completely revamped its menu so that a typical meal served was a kale/spinach/quinoa/broccoli/tofu salad, it still would be wrong to use taxpayer money (even if it’s only the cost of staffing for the assembly) in ways that advertise products. And if you agree, then I would encourage you to check out the Change.org petition which urges schools not to book this assembly (a link to that is also in the MTV article).
That doesn’t mean schools couldn’t hold something after school hours in their facilities, provided that all expenses associated with staging the event were borne by the presenter. If McDonald’s wants to pay for Cisna to present a positive message—that our choices in what and how much we eat are crucial to our health—then I think people should be able to access that message if they choose to do so. It’s all about the kids’ and their parents’ choices that I’m talking about and since the main thrust of Cisna’s message is making careful choices, I can’t imagine he would argue against banning all-school assemblies during times when kids have to be in school and forcing them to listen to him.
And that goes for all the other promotions and advertising that many schools are now accessing to supplement tight budgets. If B96 wants to provide a DJ for a school dance on the condition that posters for the dance have the B96 logo in them (which happened where I worked), that’s okay since nobody has to go to the dance if they are offended by that particular radio station or its music. It’s also different if teachers make curricular decisions to use materials which contain corporate ties. Many teachers in social studies and family/consumer ed departments have made use of Super Size Me, for example, because they were able to teach their students and help them to analyze its content. I could easily see a nutrition class using Cisna’s video and the documentation of his diet and exercise in order to analyze his nutrition, how his results (for an out-of-shape, 280 pound man in his fifties) would compare to those of growing teenagers, and how much exercise played a factor in his outcome as opposed to his diet.
Censorship is not the goal here; I’m against requiring students to participate in an event on school time that helps a for-profit company to make more money. That’s exactly what’s happening every year throughout the country with school rings right now. We shouldn’t allow Cisna or McDonald’s to do the same.
To read a couple of other articles on this topic, see http://grist.org/food/this-mcdonalds-shill-is-preaching-diet-tips-in-schools/ and http://www.cbsnews.com/news/is-a-teachers-mcdonalds-diet-education-or-marketing/. For more on ways to make public education as good as it can be, check out Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.