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McDonald’s in Hospitals and Schools?
April 18th, 2010

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Dear John,

At one of your recent lectures, I heard you say that McDonald’s is opening up franchises in hospitals and schools. How can they do this? How can the people in charge of these institutions allow this? McDonald’s in hospitals and schools?

Outraged

Dear Outraged,

Every day more fast-food outlets are taking over school food service programs, selling their greasy junk food in the very places that should be devoted to the care and nurturing of young people. More than 4,500 U.S. schools today serve Taco Bell products. The American School Food Service says that more than 30 percent of public high schools now sell name-brand fast food. Schools do this because they make more money from it than they would operating their own food services.

Meanwhile, the diets our kids are eating just plain suck. Government figures show that American children obtain a staggering 50 percent of their calories from added fat and sugar. Only 1 percent of our kids regularly eat diets resembling official dietary guidelines. The diets of nearly half of all U.S. children fail to meet ANY of the serving numbers recommended by the Food Guide Pyramid.

One result is that our kids are fat and getting fatter. More than 20 percent of all five-year-olds in the country are overweight, and more than 10 percent are clinically obese. These figures have doubled in the past 20 years. This is a tragedy for many reasons, one of which is that kids who are overweight have a much greater susceptibility to Type 2 diabetes – a leading cause of heart and kidney disease, blindness and death in the United States.

Fast food franchises are appearing more and more frequently in hospitals, too, the very institutions that ideally should be dedicated to healing and wellbeing. And once again for the same reason – money.

Dr. David Picolli is the chief of nutrition at Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital, where McDonald’s operates a restaurant in the hospital lobby. He sees nothing amiss. “We have found that managing obesity requires that no foods be forbidden,” he explains. “Fast food can be a part of a child’s healthy diet.”

McDonald’s, of course, provides support to hospitals in a variety of ways. On the one hand, Ronald McDonald Houses offer on-site lodging for parents of hospitalized children across the nation. On the other, the high saturated fat, high cholesterol, high sugar and high salt food the company sells guarantees a continual stream of patients needing hospital services.

Obesity is a health disaster for people, but it is a lucrative source of income for the medical system. A study published in the medical journal Health Affairs in March, 2002, found that obesity is substantially harder on health than smoking. People who are obese, according to the study, have nearly 50 percent more chronic medical problems than smokers. The study, performed by the UCLA/RAND Managed Care Center in Santa Monica, California, found that being obese raises a person’s healthcare costs almost twice as much as smoking, and raises medication costs almost three times as much as smoking.

Of course, fast food is not the only cause of rising obesity in our society. Our culture has become pathologically sedentary. Watching television and sitting in front of computer monitors for hour upon hour is one reason. But the high sugar and high fat foods sold by McDonald’s and the other fast food restaurants is certainly a major part of the problem. We have become a fast food nation. As an ever increasing number of our meals have been eaten in these restaurants, obesity rates in the United States nearly doubled in the 1990s, from 12 percent in 1990 to 23 percent in 1998.

Currently, the number of Americans who die prematurely each year as a result of being overweight is nearing the number who die prematurely from cigarette smoking. But there is a difference. The number of cigarettes smoked per person in the United States is on the decline, while obesity is rising rapidly. At current rates, deaths from obesity-related illnesses will very soon exceed those related to smoking.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC, Dunkin Donuts, Burger King and the others account for an ever increasing number of the foods eaten in our schools and hospitals.

I understand why you are outraged. We all should be.

John

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