Casey Hinds showed up at her first McDonald's annual shareholder meeting in Illinois Thursday—to crash it. For months, she and five other nutrition-blogger moms prepared to confront McDonald's executives about marketing strategies aimed at children, like the use of cartoons and celebrities.
They're part of a nationwide network called #MomsNotLovinIt, organized by the nonprofit Corporate Accountability International (CAI) to curb the marketing of junk food to kids and the rise of diet-related disease.
Hinds had never done anything like this, she told YES!, and she was nervous. Outside the meeting, hundreds of protesters had gathered for the second day in a row to demand better pay for low-wage McDonald's workers (138 people were arrested Wednesday for trespassing—and 101 of them were McDonald's workers).
When Hinds and the other moms arrived inside the meeting, they found that, rather than being invited to approach the microphone with their concerns, this year they had to submit questions ahead of time to be screened by CEO Don Thompson. Only one of the six moms who prepared statements were invited to speak.
"It took away my nervousness when I felt like they were trying to shut us down," Hinds said. "It fired me up."
Last year, Hannah Robertson—a 9-year-old—took Thompson to task in front of shareholders for trying to "trick" kids into eating unhealthy food. "Something that I don't think is fair is when big companies try to trick kids into eating food that isn't good for them by using toys and cartoon characters," she said during the Q&A session of the meeting (have a listen to her statement here).
This year, things were different: "They essentially shut out the members of civil society who need to bring up important issues like labor and health," said Kara Kaufman, a representative of CAI. "Instead we heard concerns about McDonald's gravy and biscuits ... and Bingo. One woman wanted to know why a Bingo program near her house had been discontinued."
Three of the moms shared their stories anyway, two of them piping up during a special session when they weren't supposed to.
According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale
—In 2012, preschoolers saw 1,023 fast food ads—2.8 per day.
—Six billion fast food ads appeared on Facebook—19 percent of all fast food display advertising—including more than half of Dunkin' Donuts' and Wendy's ads.
—McDonald's display ads for Happy Meals increased 63 percent to 31 million ads monthly. Three-quarters appeared on kids' websites, such as Nick.com, Roblox.com, and CartoonNetwork.com.
Hinds, a former Air Force pilot and founder of the website KY Healthy Kids, started dabbling in public health advocacy when she became a mother. "We have a family history of Type 2 diabetes so it was important to teach the kids healthy habits," she said.
Hinds is from Lexington, Kentucky—a state with one of the nation's highest obesity rates and high rates of other diet-related diseases as well.
The CDC reports that according to current trends, nationwide one in three children could develop type 2 diabetes as adults (many as a result of diets high in McDonald's-style junk food) and will likely live shorter lives than their parents. Many activists link these alarming figures to the intentional targeting of children when it comes to marketing.
Earlier this week, McDonald's rolled out a sort of creepy new cartoon mascot, "Happy"—a Happy Meal box with teeth. (Seriously. Check out the best tweets about it here). In April, the company announced that Ronald McDonald "will take an active role" in McDonald's social media when the kid-friendly spokesclown unveiled his new cargo-pants look. (“Selfies …here I come! It’s a big world and now, wherever I go and whatever I do...I’m ready to show how fun can make great things happen,” said Ronald McDonald in a statement.)
While such efforts might seem a bit contrived to most of us, including older kids, parents fear that for little kids, they work.Hinds said she doesn't keep the TV on at home and she doesn't take her kids to McDonald's herself, "but it's still not enough." On a trip to the library with her daughters, for example, Hinds saw a poster for a Ronald McDonald event. "I thought, 'Now there's one more place being used to market to my kids.'"
Parents like Hinds report feeling undermined when fast food companies reach their kids where parents have less influence—like schools and libraries. "It creates a desire in them," Hinds said. "And it puts us in a tight spot between saying no, creating deprivation feelings, and saying yes and creating diet-related diseases."
There's a growing movement of people—especially parents—who are concerned with fast food's impact on public health. Kaufman said CAI recruited these six moms to lead the #MomsNotLovinIt campaign because they've already established themselves as influential changemakers in their own communities when it comes to protecting children's health.
"We're just a group of moms against this huge corporation," Hinds said. "It feels like David taking on Goliath, but because it's for our kids we'll do it."
Now meet the rest.
Migdalia Rivera is an associate campaign director at MomsRising.org, where she works with hundreds of bloggers and coordinates the powerhouse organization’s weekly #FoodFri tweetchats. Based in New York City, she is also the founder of the award-winning blog Latina on a Mission, the owner of Stiletto Media, and the mother of two boys (she writes that her most important title “will always be Mom”).
Rivera cares deeply about improving children’s health—particularly that of Latino youth, who suffer disproportionate rates of diet-related disease. Rivera says children of color are given a “double-dose” of marketing by fast food corporations—and that makes her angry. McDonald's child-targeted website, HappyMeal.com, was visited 30 percent more often by Hispanic youth than by other youth according to a 2012-2013 study by Yale University.
It’s not fair that McDonald's has aggressively put locations in black and Latino communities, including near schools, she says.
Rosa Perea’s 9-year-old son is an avid basketball player—his role model is LeBron James. He tries to emulate LeBron’s moves and talks about him non-stop.
So it makes Perea incredibly upset to see McDonald’s use the basketball star to appeal to millions of children like her son.
Perea is assistant director of the Centro Comunitario Juan Diego in Chicago’s South Side. As a health educator and a mother, Perea sees every day how fast food chains flood her community with marketing that targets children.
As diet-related diseases such as Type 2 diabetes are the number one health concern in her community, Perea often feels outraged by the aggressive tactics like putting toys in Happy Meals, sponsoring athletes and celebrities, sending Ronald McDonald to schools, and even targeting Latino communities through “culture” websites like MeEncanta.com.
Bettina Siegel enjoyed a career as a high-powered lawyer, representing renowned clients and handling litigation and corporate transactions.
After welcoming her first child into the world, she decided to try on another career: that of a stay-at-home mom in Houston, Texas. She began writing for regional and national outlets, and eventually created the The Lunch Tray, a critically acclaimed blog (with recognition from the likes of Jamie Oliver and The Huffington Post) covering anything related to “kids and food, in school and out.”
Siegel’s writing has propelled her into the national spotlight as a champion school food reform activist, and she was recently named one of the 15 most important moms in the food industry
In 2012, she launched a Change.org petition which quickly garnered more than a quarter of a million signatures and led the USDA to change its policy with respect to the use of “lean, finely textured beef” (aka “pink slime”) in school food ground beef.
Sally Kuzemchak thought she knew everything about nutrition. Then she had kids.
“Motherhood rocked my world, for better and for worse,” Kuzemchak, who has a Master’s degree in dietetics and extensive experience writing about nutrition for magazines, reflects on her parenting blog, Real Mom Nutrition. “My free time vanished, as did my gym workouts. When my kids were both babies, healthy meals devolved into grabbing random food from the fridge (and from my kids’ plates).”
On the sidelines of her children's soccer field in Columbus, Ohio, Kuzemchak watched as the elementary school staff fed all of the young players hundreds of calories of desserts and sugary drinks. Questioning this practice, Sally launched the Snactivism campaign, a grassroots network helping parents improve the food kids eat at school events and sports team practices.
Sally joined the team of moms at this year’s McDonald’s shareholders’ meeting to expose the hypocrisies rampant in the corporation’s “healthwashing” rhetoric. For instance, she says, the corporation claims to care about moms, and yet undermines parental authority.
Leah Segedie had what she describes as “a love affair with McDonald’s” since she was a young girl. Her meal of choice was a cheeseburger Happy Meal; she associated Happy Meals with happiness and she says that association helped her balloon to a size 22. A mother of three kids, she decided to swear off McDonald’s and soda so her children could have a better future. That decision was the first step toward losing 100 pounds and regaining her health.
Today Segedie is founder of the Mamavation community, where she teaches “digital moms” healthy living practices to combat disease in their homes and coordinates a network of more than 9,500 bloggers. Segedie has been named “Mom of the Year” by Shape Magazine, 9th most Influential Mommy Blogger by Cision Media, and one of the Top 10 Women Changing School Nutrition.
Even though she doesn’t feed her children McDonald’s, she feels they’re still being reached everywhere: Her son’s elementary school academic achievement award even came with a coupon for a free McDonald’s meal.