May 8, 2012 -- Ronald McDonald: wellness instructor? The hamburger pitchman recently showed up at the Union Terrace Elementary School in Allentown, Pa., to teach kids about the benefits of healthy eating and exercise.
Yes, that's right. The Big Mac mascot is delivering a health pitch on the trail of evidence that suggests American kids are getting fatter by the day, and that schools are the natural frontline in the battle against obesity.
The school welcomed the red-haired clown because, in a time of program cutbacks and tight budgets, Ronald McDonald came with a $1,000 check, whose memo line reads: "nutrition program."
McDonald's spokeswoman Danya Proud explained that while the gift was a local initiative by McDonald's Restaurants of the Greater Philadelphia Region, it was related to a promotional nationwide effort by the restaurant chain to make meals healthier by decreasing fat, salt and sugar, while increasing fiber.
According to Proud, after Ronald McDonald lectured the students on healthy eating, he broke into a 40-minute "Go Active With Ronald McDonald" show intended to encourage kids to up their physical activity. "As Ronald says, 'It's what I eat and what I do ... and what I do is Go Active!" reads McDonald's literature on clown act, which is delivered free-of-charge to grade schools across the country.
The Allentown Morning Call quoted some parents and local nutrition experts as expressing approval of the gift and congratulating McDonald's on its generosity. Others, however, took exception, enough so that school district superintendent Russell Mayo later issued a statement that read in part:
"Allentown School District appreciates the gift of $1,000 from McDonald's Corporation ... to support student activities. By accepting this contribution, the district is not endorsing, condoning or condemning McDonald's Corporation. We are aware of the positive changes they are making to their menu for children, and we appreciate their community service practices."
Eric Ruth, co-founder and CEO of the Kellyn Foundation, which fights childhood obesity, in Bethlehem, Pa., told ABC News that he understood perfectly why the district took the money that came with the clown's message: "Schools are strapped. How do you pass up a thousand bucks? I'm not saying it's right or wrong, just that you have to call it what it is: a marketing program."
Kids, he said, lacked the ability to distinguish between advertising and genuine instruction. The fact that the dispenser of advice came in the guise of a clown naturally entices them to go eat at McDonald's, Ruth said. He conceded that McDonald's food indeed had gotten healthier but still had a ways to go.
Proud said similar events would likely take place at other franchises, but since McDonald's allowed its franchises considerable autonomy, it was difficult for the home office to know exactly how many or by whom.
She confirmed, though, that the same group that did the Allentown show had additional in-school events planned for 2012 in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware. To the north, a different group of franchises has launched the McDonald's New York Metro Nutrition Network, whose goal, according to its website, is to help local nonprofit organizations provide nutrition guidance. Nonprofits, including schools, can apply for $5,000 grants, five of which will be awarded this year.
Tanya Zuckerbrot, a dietitian and author of "The F-Factor Diet: Discover the Secret to Permanent Weight Loss," said she had partnered with the New York network to advise it on nutrition. In an earlier book, Zuckerbrot named McDonald's as one fast-food chain that offered healthy menu choices. She recently prepared tips for eating at McDonald's for the New York network, showing how the health-and-calorie conscious could eat three meals at day at the Golden Arches and still keep their calorie count to 1,180.
"I have always recommended to my patients that they can eat healthy while dining out," she told ABC News.