Elementary school students won't receive gold stars but rather a taste of the Golden Arches for their good grades in Seminole County, Fla., under a corporate-sponsorship program that awards high-achieving students with Happy Meals.
The "report card incentive," as the program is known, is explained on the front of specially produced envelopes bearing the image of Ronald McDonald and in which the report cards for every student in the county's 37 elementary schools are sent home.
The incentives are described as "food prizes," and a report card of all A's and B's or an attendance record blemished by just two absences is enough to earn a student a free Happy Meal.
The county school board insists the program is necessary to fund academic programs, but critics contend that this initiative, like thousands of other in-school advertising programs across the country, adds little to school budgets and instead allows corporations to peddle unhealthy goods to children.
"We value McDonald's and other companies that support education," said Bill Vogel, superintendent of the county's schools. "We have over 900 business partners that provide incentives."
Vogel insisted that McDonald's offered healthy options on its menu and that the report card envelope features images of both chicken McNuggets and sliced apples dipped in a sugary sauce the company calls Apple Dippers.
"It is a wonderful idea," said John Banzhaf III, a law professor George Washington University who has sued tobacco companies and the fast food industry. "The next thing the school should offer is cigarettes and alcohol. … Why aren't schools selling Hustler or Playboy magazines out of vending machines too? Schools shouldn't be selling things that endanger children just to make a buck. "
About 20 million children in the United States qualify as overweight or clinically obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, leading many public health experts to point their fingers at fast food and junk food companies that market high fat and high calorie foods to kids.
According to a study on marketing unhealthy foods in public schools by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, between 26.6 and 30.3 million students are exposed, in school, to marketing by corporations that sell unhealthy foods. Incentive programs, along with fund-raising activities and exclusive agreements, make up the bulk of the campaigns.
About 67 percent of all schools nationwide allow for advertising by companies that sell "foods of minimal nutritional value and food high in fat and sugar conduct the majority of the marketing that is found in schools," the study found.
"We depend on corporate partners in Seminole County and we appreciate and support those companies that support us," said Vogel.
Vogel would not say how much money corporate sponsorships contributed to the schools in his county, but according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study most schools do not receive significant funds as a result of allowing corporate advertising.
"Some 73 percent of schools that have marketing by corporations that sell unhealthy foods reported receiving no income in the previous year. Some 86 percent of schools with food marketing reported that no programs or activities would be cut back if such marketing were prohibited," the study found.