Back in October, I broke a story on The Lunch Tray regarding a new McDonald’s “nutrition education” video for middle and high school students called 540 Meals: Choices Make the Difference. The film documents an experiment by John Cisna, a high school science teacher, who ate nothing but McDonald’s for six months and lost 60 pounds in the process.
But instead of teaching kids as young as age 11 about nutrition, the film is a virtual infomercial for McDonald’s, replete with troubling messages like, “There’s nothing wrong with fast food, there’s nothing wrong with McDonald’s,” as well an express instruction to kids to disregard anything negative they might see on the Internet about fast food or the company. (More on the film and why it’s so misleading to kids here.)
I was so appalled by the film (which a McDonald’s franchisee had given me in hopes of getting it shown in Houston ISD) that I published my exposé of 540 Meals here on October 12th and then sent it to every media contact I could think of. It was my hope that if people actually knew McDonald’s franchisees were pushing this aggressive marketing program into schools like mine, the company might be embarrassed into retreat.
I was amazed and gratified when, within just 24 hours, the story was picked up by a number of online media sites; by the end of that first week, pieces about 540 Meals had appeared in numerous major news outlets both in and outside the United States.
But despite the mostly negative media coverage, McDonald’s refused to back down. The company told Reuters it continued to stand by the effort, while Cisna told CBS News he “‘can’t fathom’ why people believe it’s problematic.” Accordingly, on October 19th, I decided to start a Change.org petition asking McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook to stop pushing 540 Meals into our children’s schools. To date, that petition has just under 90,000 signatures.
Five days after I started my petition, a particularly damning piece about 540 Meals, Cisna and McDonald’s other aggressive in-school marketing practices appeared on the front page of the Washington Post, “How McDonald’s Is Using Schools to Try to Change What Kids Eat.” In it, reporter Roberto Ferdman did an excellent job of exposing the disturbing relationship between McDonald’s and schools, one in which the fast food chain provides schools with desperately needed funding in exchange for getting its brand in front of impressionable children.
In the next few weeks, I appeared in a Today Show segment and on The Doctors talk show to continue to share my objections to the use of 540 Meals in schools. In both appearances, I was pitted against McDonald’s paid nutritionist, Shaye Arluk, who obviously spoke in favor of the film and of Cisna’s school appearances. But during that Doctors appearance, Arluk actually said on camera that 540 Meals was “never meant to be . . . nutrition education” – even though this is exactly how McDonald’s had been pitching the film to schools. (You can see that footage here.)
That statement seemed like a clear sign of retreat by McDonald’s. I also began to note a significant change in Cisna’s Twitter feed. Previously, it had been his habit to tweet every few days from speaking engagements at schools around the country:
But not long after the launch of my petition and the period of intense media scrutiny in October and early November, Cisna stopped tweeting entirely for a period of fifty days. When he resumed tweeting, there were no further mentions of speaking engagements at schools, only appearances before groups of adults:
For all of these reasons, I’ve suspected for months now that our Change.org petition and related media coverage actually succeeded in putting a stop to Cisna’s in-school appearances – and likely also the distribution of the 540 Meals film in schools. However, I had no way of confirming any of this on my own. (When I first learned about 540 Meals last fall, I sent several emails and left repeated phone messages with McDonald’s corporate offices and received no reply, so I knew there was no point in calling to ask, “Hey, I’m the person who started a petition against you. Can you tell me if we’ve won?”)
But now, at long last, I have clear proof that we did win!
Minutes ago, the Washington Post published online a follow-up story by Ferdman (a story which will appear in tomorrow’s print paper) that unequivocally confirms McDonald’s pulled the plug on the entire Cisna/540 Meals in-school program – and that it did so last fall, right around the time of my initial Lunch Tray posts, our Change.org petition and Ferdman’s original front page report. Specifically, Ferdman was able to get McDonald’s to confirm on the record that:
Cisna made his last school appearance . . . on November 13. Neither the documentary, nor any of the accompanying materials are being shared with or used at schools anymore, according to McDonald’s.
In other words: VICTORY — for our petition campaign and for the health and wellbeing of our children.
I want to take a moment to thank all the reporters who took an early interest in this story, especially Roberto Ferdman at the Washington Post, Lisa Baertlein of Reuters and Tom Philpott of Mother Jones, as well as everyone who shared my posts about 540 Meals on social media and signed and shared my petition. I’d also like to thank Pulin Modi, Senior Campaign Organizer at Change.org, for his assistance during this campaign, including flying out to Los Angeles just to provide moral support when I had to debate McDonald’s before a live audience on The Doctors! And thanks, too, to Corporate Accountability International and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood for their support of this effort.
This is now my third successful Change.org petition and I’ve never felt more hopeful about the power of ordinary people to make real changes in the world, even against one of the largest corporations on the planet.
Thank you for joining me in standing up for children’s health!
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