I am not only a Registered Dietitian, but I am also now an expecting mother of my first child. Every meal I eat, my mind is on my unborn child who cannot yet choose what nutrition he receives. That isn’t to say that I haven’t had at least a dozen cinnamon rolls during a three-week stent of craving cinnamon sugar… But it is to say that I try every day to make overall healthy eating a priority by cooking the vast majority of my foods at home.
I also spend a lot of time thinking about all of the lessons I can’t wait to teach him, and where we will go together on adventures to explore and learn. Children’s museums seem like the most natural first stop. I have always loved children’s museums! My mother would take my brother and me every summer to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and the Indianapolis Zoo over a two-day stay. Those times were very special to me. My husband and I just visited the Adventure Science Center in Nashville, TN a few months ago, dreaming of ideas for the future version we’d love to create. Building and curating a learning center for children has always been a dream of my husband. He wants to encourage children to think independently, discover the current technology of the day, and inspire them to create something even more exceptional.
This led me to look into what my local community had to offer already. I was so glad to see that a mere ten minutes away from my home was a children’s museum! I started following them on Facebook, and it wasn’t long until my heart sank. Here is what I saw:
The caption read in part: “Her favorite place is McDonald’s because ‘There was a real McDonald’s without the real food.’”
I was instantly troubled. This exhibit wasn’t teaching the children in my community anything except associating good feelings of play with Golden Arches. This is a classic and very effective marketing technique for the fast-food industry, but no one does it better than McDonald’s. I went to the museum's website to read about the displays, and under the McDonald’s exhibit, the website read: “What’s a child’s favorite meal? A Happy Meal! Our pretend McDonald’s allows your child to serve hamburgers, fries, McFlurries, and more. This exhibit serves as our official party room and is open to the public when it is not reserved for a private party.”
“Come into my parlor,” said the spider to the fly…
According to stateofchildhoodobesity.org, my state of Ohio has a childhood obesity rate of 17.2% for children ages 10-17, ranking them 17th highest incidence in the nation. 35.5% of Ohioan adults have obesity, ranking us the 14th fattest state in the US. 12% of Ohioan adults have diabetes, putting them in 14th place as well. 34.5% of Ohioan adults have hypertension. According to the CDC, the estimated medical cost, plus loss of productivity, related to diabetes was $327 billion in 2017, while obesity was costing us an additional $147 billion as a nation.
There have been numerous long-term studies done on the effects of fast-food consumption contributing to the obesity and diabetes epidemic. Multiple documentaries, including a favorite of mine, Fed Up (2014), have exposed the link between Big Food marketing to children and the increased incidence of obesity and diabetes. All of this is even old news— we had this data available in the early 2000’s, yet we continue to be lured in by the convenience, low prices, and widely-accepted palatability of these giants. We also know— not opinion, but know, through scientific studies— that targeted advertising to children works amazingly.
One disturbing article I found to illustrate this point was from Business Insider, written two years ago (you can read the entire article here: https://www.businessinsider.com/mcdonalds-mms-among-fast-food-candy-brands-advertising-to-kids-2020-11). We know that the food and beverage industry spends around $1.8 billion every year on targeted advertisements to children, but The New York University was studying the effects of fast-food advertising done on YouTube for free by child “influencers”. One quote from the article reads, “Children are filmed by their parents playing with toys and discussing hobbies and interests. The parents then upload these videos to YouTube. These children become influencers if their channel has lots of subscribers and views – and as a result, they can influence viewers' buying behavior by endorsing products in their videos, which can make sales jump by up to 28%, the researchers said.”
Me, being me, I decided to reach out to the director of my local children’s museum to not only express my concern, but also to offer a helping hand. I called with two suggestions:
· Tell me a number that I could fundraise up to in order to get McDonald’s out of the museum
· Put a nutrition exhibit directly next to or signage of some sort explaining the dangers of consuming fast-food on a regular basis.
The conversation did not go as well as my optimistic-self desired. I thought he would say, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t even see the connection. They just offered money and we took it. Let’s see how we can help the children of the community lead healthier lives.” Instead, I was told that I would have to bring $500 thousand to the table to even start a conversation about getting McDonald’s out as a sponsor (because, I was told, that’s how much they have contributed thus far), then find a replacement exhibit for $15-25 thousand a year. I was also told that the policy of this children’s museum is that no signage should ever be used because the children should be able to simply play without reading anything for explanation (not really a great way to promote literacy, in my opinion… and yes, that is an opinion), therefore no signage would be posted with nutritional information near the McDonald’s exhibit. I was also told that if I wanted to sponsor my own nutrition exhibit, it could not have any signage whatsoever and would also cost me $15-25 thousand. I expressed my concern with the director over the implications of having a fast-food giant as a sponsor and how that is, undoubtedly, effecting our local community. I was told that the McDonald’s exhibit is one of the community’s favorites out of the 40 current exhibits. I replied, “That’s the problem.” He laughed and said, “So what, you want me to also get rid of Domino’s and Dairy Queen (as sponsors), too?”
This is not your fault as parents. Even the “good guys” who first sought to make their communities a better place, a safe place for children to play and learn, have sold out to these brilliant marketing demons with deep pockets. I understand that running a nonprofit takes sponsors, but we cannot afford as a community to make deals with the devil when the health of our children becomes the ultimate price. Please, if you see something like this in your community, stand up for what is right and let your voice be heard. Tell your friends and loved ones. Even though it may seem like we are yelling into the void, we must keep fighting for what is right for our children’s futures.
And if my husband and I ever get to finally open that children’s museum we dream of, I promise that we will know how to vet our sponsors appropriately to inspire them to do more than become victims to the addictive food culture we reside in.