Monday, August 08, 2011

Japanese McDonald's serving up McChildren

And you thought Happy Meals exploited children.

Thanks to blog reader, colleague, and the Head, Food Policy Research Initiative, Ontario Tobacco Research Unit, Catherine Mah, for finding and forwarding this jaw dropper.

Background on this one (also thanks to Catherine) - "Shokuiku" is the Japanese term for "food education", and according to her,

"Key areas of shokuiku focus include over and underweight, agriculture, education, and (a key one) cultural promotion. Driving forces for the creation of shokuiku were declining public trust in the food system, changing social and cultural dynamics related to food, and concerns about domestic agricultural self-sufficiency. The policy was legislator driven, launched during the Koizumi administration days, and a national Food Education Basic Law was adopted in 2005."
Shokuiku lessons are generally delivered in elementary school, and according to Catherine are,
"about addressing food deskilling among young people: food handling (including growing and cooking) skills, food safety, learning about where food comes from, "traditional" Japanese food, benefits of eating breakfast, the food guide, healthy eating/eating patterns to prevent NCDs (in Japan, referred to as "lifestyle diseases"), benefits of eating with your family."
Sounds great, right?

Yes in fact, it does sound great. I wish our elementary students had shokuiku lessons.

So what's the jaw dropper?

The lesson plans are being drawn up by McDonald's.

Unfortunately, my Japanese is a little bit rusty (non-existent), so I had to rely on Google's translation service to peek at the site. Clicking over here will take you to McDonald's shokuiku main site, while clicking here will take you to their supplementary kids' shokuiku site.

I couldn't see anything awful on my cursory tour. No recommendations for French fries, no Ronald teaching class, so see, this is just an example of a great public-private partnership....or is it?

I found what appears to be a chapter in a textbook written by someone named Mark Frank. It details an exercise to translate a few of the shokuiku lessons to English.

Get prepared to shudder, here's lesson one - on food mileage,
"To introduce the concept of food mileage to young children, students in the Food and Communications class started from the question, "Where does a McDonald's Cheeseburger come from?" Researching this from the Japanese McDonald's homepage and other sources they found the beef comes from Australia, the cheese comes from New Zealand, and the bread comes from wheat grown in the US and Canada....Examining the rest of the McDonald's menu they learned that the chicken in the McNuggets comes from China, the fish from the Filet 'O Fish comes from Russia and the potatoes in the French fries come from the United States.....

The lesson for children was divided into three parts: vocabulary practice, a map exercise, and a quiz. First using picture cards the various ingredients of a McDonald's menu were introduced: Hamburger, cheese, fish, chicken, potatoes, lettuce, tomato, wheat and bun.....
So why is this a jaw dropper? Shouldn't McDonald's been praised for their work? What's wrong with teaching about food miles using McDonald's as an example?

On the one hand, it's undeniably great that Japanese schoolchildren are learning about healthy eating. On the other hand, with lesson plans being delivered by McDonald's, lesson plans on healthy eating, delivered to children under the age of 12, where the lessons have children as young at 6 literally studying McDonald's menu and doing "research" on the McDonald's Japanese homepage, do you think that maybe, just maybe (and I'm being sarcastic here), that McDonald's is hoping that those school children will associate McDonald's branding of their healthy eating classes, and hence McDonald's as a whole, with healthy eating? Or at the very least are hoping to introduce an entire generation of Japanese school children to the wonders of the McDonald's menu (which of course includes the requisite kids' site)?

Of course they are.

Do you think there'll be a lesson that explicitly suggests that eating out is one of the primary drivers of obesity and chronic disease, and that actively discourages frequenting restaurants for reasons of convenience?

Of course there won't. In fact, in that translated lesson plan here's a reference I found regarding eating out,
"Our college and our community are literally surrounded by rice paddies, bean fields, and small vegetable gardens. At the same time, our college is also surrounded by the food most college students, young families and children eat: family restaurants, ramen, McDonald's, franchise restaurants and 100 yen sushi shops. Both contain mysteries; both are separated from our understanding by walls that can be overcome by shokuiku."
And even putting aside the potential for these lessons to influence the attitudes of school children as to the healthfulness of McDonald's, were there ever a call out in Japan for legislation that in turn might have a potential negative impact on McDonald's ability to sell food to school children (advertising reforms, zoning law changes, Happy Meal toy bans, etc.), do you think that their involvement in shokuiku wouldn't immediately be trotted out as evidence they're part of the solution, and not the problem?

Of course it would.

But I'm guessing such a call will be a long time coming. Why? Because these McDonald's Japanese shokuiku lessons? They have the imprimatur of the Japanese Ministry of Education.

So here's my question. How does one weigh the obvious benefits of utilizing McDonald's massive resources to put together lessons plans on healthy eating, with the more insidious and in many cases unmeasurable risks inherent to this public-private partnership?

Truly, I don't know the answer - your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

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  1. This is yet another example of the irony of the food culture. I made a vow never to take the twins to McDonalds and they are coming up to their 4th birthday and I have kept that vow. I made that same vow for myself and I would rather go hungry than give them any money.It goes beyond the bad food; it's part of the indoctrination of obesity that I protest.

  2. A sensitive topic surely to rile the masses! To me, it's a moot point, at least from a Canadian perspective. Even if Ministries of Education (10+) and school boards (hundreds) and schools (thousands) get on board with nutrition and food education, how good is it? Canada's Food Guide anyone? Eat less and move more, and we will solve the obesity problem, right?!

    So, IF the McD's/Japanese partnership actually has good information in it, and it engages kids, and the government would have otherwise NOT been able or willing to fund it, is it bad? If my kids learn about nutrition and food properly (and it is mostly my job to do that, not the school's, not McD's), won't they know that a cheeseburger is OK once in a while?

    And won't they be bombarded my McD's TV ads, billboards, presence on every street corner in every major (and minor community), their friends' birthday parties, etc. anyway?

    IF you can take the corporate money and do something good with it (and you can't always do that), even if it is mutually beneficial, take it and run, I say.

    McD's is not going out of business.

  3. I understand Dr Nick's point of view. McDonald's will be there no matter what, why not take the money for good? However, this arrangement worries me.

    This seems to be a page from the marketing strategy of education to build credibility followed by gentle direction to your product or service. I have no problem with this strategy in general, but it has its drawbacks. Especially in this example.

    Naturally, McDonald's will eventually move to applying their healthy eating lessons to make better choices at their restaurants. Where that leads is anyone's guess.

    Ultimately, I suppose we should be hopeful a company that has contributed to obesity would take steps to positively affect dietary habits.

    Still, it makes me nervous. Too much "wolf guarding the henhouse".

  4. Roman Korol1:44 pm

    I guess in its education for the masses, McDonald's discreetly glosses over the fact that the animals whence comes their meat are products of CAFOs - filthy crowded cages where they are mutilated and tormented, pumped full of hormones and antibiotics, and fed pesticide-laden grains they were not designed to eat while spending their lives anchored in liquid manure aka diarrhea. OK to eat an occasional cheeseburger from that kind of source? Urk - chacun à son goût!

  5. I meant only to say, to coarsely paraphrase Yoda, there is only "do" or "not do".

    SO many issues plague the public-private partnership issue, when it comes to money in particular. And it most often seems that the purists' arguments against them amount to "never accept money under any terms that aren't 100% free from any obligation to the private funder/partner, and never under any circumstance that would in any way remotely benefit them directly or indirectly, and certainly not in a way that would allow them to score PR points with the public lest they overstate their involvement’… blah blah blah.

    Fair enough! Coke should not be a sponsor of a juvenile diabetes event. Rothman’s ought not to support asthma programs in high schools.

    But where is this utopian parallel dimension where funding is unsullied by bias, personal or professional interests, institutional agendas, history, the economy, votes, politics, private interests, public demand, media-fueled misconceptions (see: AIDS, obesity) etc. ad nauseum?

    I admit, at a mere mention, I don’t want McD’s teaching my kids about nutrition – and in a school setting, no less. But did the schools do any better before? Would they do any better without the program now? Do health professionals on the whole do any better?

    Has our government done any better?

    Did the program turn a significant number of participating children into Happy Meal fiends? Maybe it did.

    But knowing dozens upon dozens of school-aged children via my own kids’ relationships, I know that i) most are already well aware of McD’s, whether or not they are allowed or keen to partake and ii) many are already Happy Meal fiends.

    What if – and I am just asking, what if – the kids who emerge from this program emerge the Happy Meal fiends they were to begin with, but as Happy Meal fiends who now understand what they ought to be eating in a day and why.

    The argument against carte blanche refusal to take industry money is tiresome if only because it is an unwinnable argument, and one unlikely to deter it from happening.

    Someone will take the money – why not someone who knows what they are doing? Someone who can leverage it into something worthwhile, based on real knowledge, towards positive outcomes? Someone with the policies, experience and infrastructure necessary to engage industry in this way?

    Won't engagement be the way their mad, mad ways are changed? Very few wars are won without all sides finally sitting down at a table.

  6. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments.

    It's certainly not a black and white issue.

  7. It's kind of incredible they would let mcdonalds educate kids about healthy eating.

    It is like having drug dealers and manufacturers educate kids about the harmfulness of drugs

  8. I completely agree. They should absolutely not be able to educate kids!

    Kinda cool that the ingredients for a single burger come from all over, including the US and Canada.

    Nothing really surprises me anymore though. Good read,