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.
Though the Seminole County program is sponsored by local franchisees, the McDonald's headquarters in Illinois said in a statement that the Florida program "promotes academic excellence and rewards academic achievement. … McDonald's provides parents with Happy Meal choices including chicken McNuggets made with white meat, hamburgers, cheeseburgers, Apple Dippers, apple juice and low-fat milk, so they can choose the Happy Meal that is appropriate for their child."
McDonald's isn't the only company to offer incentives. Pizza Hut until recently offered a similar program in Seminole County and throughout the country called Just Book It.
Other companies, including Coca-Cola and Pepsi have exclusivity rights with some schools, offering to build scoreboards or sponsor sports teams for rights to sell their products on campus.
"It is sometimes called Coke for kickbacks," said George Washington's Banzhaf. "Schools get money for every sugary soft drink sold and use it for class trips or sports teams. … Everyone is making money off of ruining these kids' health."
Corporations also send schools educational materials pegged to a particular product. General Mills has a program called Spark Creativity With Fruit Loops that encourages preschool and elementary school students to make craft projects with the sugary cereal.
Schoolchildren are also subjected to electronic advertising through News 1, an in-school television network that according to Susan Linn, a Harvard University professor and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, plays two minutes of ads for every 12 minutes of programming. Some of those ads are not just for junk food but also violent video games.
Another company called Bus Radio broadcasts to students while riding to and from school.
But fast food is the largest industry targeting kids in schools. Fast food makes up more than a third of the total dining industry, about $170 billion in 2006.
"In 2000, the GAO [Government Accountability Office] called marketing in school 'a gross industry' and it has only escalated exponentially since then," said Linn.
"Companies love to market in schools because they have a captive audience. Moreover, everything marketed in schools carries the school's endorsement. Even if kids don't like school they knows it's good for them, so schools are basically saying these products are good for you."
In 2003, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit brought against the company by two obese teenagers. Since then, McDonald's has made an attempt to introduce healthier items to its menu and remove the supersize option for french fries and soft drinks.
The company has also introduced a program in which an individual dressed as corporate mascot Ronald McDonald enters schools to teach children about fitness.
Critics contend that a fitness program sponsored by McDonald's is comparable to Big Tobacco's anti-smoking campaigns or alcohol companies' campaigns against drinking and driving.
"These ads are all directed at kids, no matter how McDonald's tries to spin a promotion, even if they call it a fitness program," Banzhaf said, "Ronald McDonald is a clown, there are some places where the only playground for miles is at McDonald's, and they even host birthday parties. It is impossible for anyone to argue that they aren't trying to get kids hooked, and once hooked every study shows they get fat and they get sick."