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Food: We're Doing It Wrong -- Fast Food Marketing, Poverty, and Food Security

Two significant food-related reports were released today. One of them, Fast Food Facts, looks at fast food marketing in the United States and found that the industry spent $4.2 billion on advertising in 2012. The other one, Hunger Count, looks at food bank use in Canada and found that 833,098 people turned to a food bank in Canada in March 2013. These reports are both significant because they point to important issues relating to health and food security in North America. They are related because our capitalist society values and promotes advertising as increasing choice, while at the same time continuing to support an unsustainable food system that ensures low income families have little to no choice.

We lose billions of dollars each year trying to address the health and social consequences of poverty after it takes its toll - RATHER THAN PREVENTING IT IN THE FIRST PLACE

That sentence, from Hunger Count, says it all. We're a reactive society. Instead of working to create sustainable food systems, we donate to the food bank. Instead of saying that we won't accept fast food companies targeting our kids, we think it is simply our job to say "no" when our kids ask (not realizing that as a society, we're not saying "no" nearly enough).

Take a look at this graphic. In 2012, $4.6 billion was spent on advertising of fast food, while only $116 million was spent advertising fruit and vegetables.

The graphic gives a good sense of the loudness of the different messages families are getting. "So don't let your kids watch TV if you don't want them exposed to fast food advertising," is what many people say. That may have some truth to it, since the vast majority of fast food advertising dollars are spent on television advertising. According to the Fast Food Facts report, "on average, U.S. preschoolers viewed 2.8 fast food ads on TV every day in 2012, older children viewed 3.2 ads, and teens viewed 4.8 ads daily."However, it doesn't tell the whole story. Every day my kids pass Tim Horton's billboards, McDonald's trucks, fried chicken delivery vehicles. They have eyes, they can read, but we're still working on their critical thinking skills (I suspect most adults could use some work on theirs too), so those ads and those messages reach them. "That's not really candy, it's fruit," they say of the sugar bombs in their Halloween candy  (wrong, sorry).

To get an idea of which advertising is reaching which age groups, take a look at this chart.

People often ask "why are you being so mean to McDonald's when all the other companies are doing bad things too?". Let me give you a few reasons:

  • McDonald's targets and reaches children more than any other fast food company (probably more than any brand at all)
  • McDonald's makes far more money off of families of small children than any other company (three times as much as the #2 company, which is Subway)
  • Despite introducing "healthier choices", McDonald's children's meals still do not meet nutrition standards for children (while some options at Subway, Arby's and other companies do)
  • Other companies removed web pages that targeted children, but McDonald's still has and promotes its happymeal.com website, which is the only child-targeted fast food website that gets more than 100,000 monthly unique visitors (that's more than my blog, can you believe it?) --> You can tell McDonald's to shut down happymeal.com.
  • McDonald's generates a lot of public good will through its McDonald House charities, but it only contributes 1/5 of the budget for the charity, while continuing to market and profit from children and schools under the guise of "charity"

This doesn't mean that I'm letting the other companies off the hook, but I do think that as the market leader in sales and brand recognition, McDonald's should be setting a good example, not the worst example. It should be a leader in the industry, not a laggard.

What if the $4.2 billion was spent advertising healthy food choices and only $116 million on fast food? Do children really, REALLY, prefer fast food over healthier options as much as they (we) think they do? Or has advertising and society just taught them to crave it so much more?

I don't accept any fast food or junk food ads on my blog. Part of the reason is that I don't agree with the ethical choices of many of these companies, but the other part is that I don't want to be part of this big machine aimed at convincing the world to eat more unhealthy food. But I do want to be part of the machine that is promoting greater food security. So how can we do that?

First, let's look at some of the facts from the food banks' Hunger Count report:

  • Despite so-called economic recovery in Canada, the number of people accessing the food bank in one month hasn't gone down significantly. In March 2008, 675,735 people accessed a food bank. In March 2012 it was 872,379 and in March 2013 it was 833,098.
  • 38% of food banks in Canada have been forced to cut back the amount of food that hey provide to each household because they don't have enough
  • 8% of people asking for help from a food bank are turned away because the food bank doesn't have enough food
  • 53% of food banks have had to buy more food than usual because in-kind donations do not meet the need

It is important to remember that food banks were never intended to be a permanent solution. They were created as  a temporary emergency relief measure in the recession of the 1980s and have been with us ever since. The Food Banks of Canada have a number of recommendations that are intended to decrease reliance on food banks. They include measures relating to affordable housing, job training, better jobs, and improved social assistance. They also address some food security programs for Northern Canada, where they are much needed. But beyond Northern Canada, their recommendations don't look much at the issue of food security on its own.

Food Secure Canada, however, worked on the creation of a detailed People's Food Policy that includes recommendations to improve food sovereignty, that is to acknowledge the role of food as a foundation for healthy lives, communities, economies and eco-systems. This is done by supporting eating local, community-supported agriculture, local farmer's markets, more ecological production, food literacy programs, focusing on children and food (school meal programs, school gardens), and ensuring the public is involved in decisions relating to the food system.

I can't solve these problems on my own, but I'll continue to do what I can by supporting healthy, sustainable food options (gardening, buying from local farmers, etc.), teaching my children about healthy foods and predatory advertising, and continuing to fight for the elimination of advertising to children (not just of fast food, but that is certainly a big part of it since it has been proven to decrease childhood obesity rates). Because we need to continue to support short-term solutions while building long-term solutions, I'll also keep supporting local food banks through cash donations and volunteering. 

What suggestions do you have for increasing food security and decreasing the predatory presence of fast food advertising in our lives? How do we make food a foundation for healthy lives instead of just another over-hyped consumer product?

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Reader Comments (6)

Marketing promotes junk and processed food, for the most part. Even coupons are mostly for processed and junk food. It's easy to teach children to become discerning consumers by pointing out how they are being manipulated by marketing subliminally. It's also easy to teach them what healthy food is by preparing food from scratch. It would be good to have a cook book or recipe book that teaches people how to use basic food-beans, flour, sugar, milk, eggs, etc. to feed their families and how to read Tuesday-Wednesday grocery ads to purchase meats and vegies on sale. It would even be better for church groups and other charitable organizations to show people how to prepare food by having cooking and tasting demonstrations. We don't have to be 'victims' of marketing.

November 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMo

While I do think that companies like McDonalds etc. should change their ways, I think we as parents also have to think about how we'll handle screen time for our kids.

If I let my kids watch kids programming, I'll have to accept that they will see ads for McDonalds, or in other cases advertising which is not food related but perhaps troublesome in other ways. I don't know how things work in Canada, but the two major cable kids stations in the USA are going to get revenue from somewhere to operate. For anyone that says that the Disney channel doesn't contain advertising, it is really one giant advertisement for the Disney corporation. My kids are actually beyond the Disney/Nickelodeon age, but I have to say when they were younger I found much of the other forms of advertising for toys, movies etc more troublesome than that for food related products.

But if we find visits to web pages for happy meals etc. troublesome, what again is our role as parents. Neither one of my kids have smart phones. From what I understand that is one way kids are accessing these sorts of sites. I don't know, we can't give our kids almost unlimited access to the internet, but then simultaneous complain when they come across a site we don't like. I think this has to be part of the conversation, about how media saturated our kids are.

November 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKate

So glad to see that you don't accept ads from unethical companies! We're in this together. Keep up the great work!

November 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSarah Stanley

This is a huge issue with many facets. You can't just assume that it is a matter of teaching someone about nutrition. Sure, some may not know how to cook. But what about those people who live in houses where the oven doesn't work, only one burner on the stove does (assuming the power is on regularly), the fridge freezes everything (or it doesn't keep things fresh and it all spoils quickly). What if there are not enough pots and pans and knives with which to cook? Or containers/products in which to store cooked food (if the fridge works). What if the nearest grocery store is over an hour away via sketchy public transit, and you have three young children to bring with you (assuming you can afford regular transit trips), or you work two or three jobs? With what extra three hours in the day will this household buy groceries?

Food choice is really the tip of the iceburg when it comes to healthy living. Affordable & safe housing (which includes working kitchen appliances and adequate stocks of kitchen tools), living wages, easy access to good food, and subsidies for good food (instead of tax cuts and havens for the MNCs that make the crap food) will all go a lot farther in addressing this issue. But, this will take all of society to take a step back, a few steps out of our privilege, and start effectively advocating for those that really don't have any good choices.

November 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoy

I worked as a social worker for sometime in communities of poverty. During that time I witnessed some pretty lousy nutrition practices. Practices such as orange soda in baby bottles instead of juice and lunches that consisted of cheetos alone. It was an eye opening experience as I was raised by an extremely healthy parent and I dont think I ever remember a bottle of soda in our house! What I came to quickly recognize, specifically at school events where food was served, was that the children were extremely appreciative of home cooked healthy meals. At any given event you would hear them comment "this food is so good" or "i wish I could eat this everyday" They werent asking for McDonalds, not by any means. The reason they were being indulged on fast food was because of the choices their parents were making for them. Parents, many who received food stamps, who were not taking the time or making the effort to prepare healthy food for their children. They were instead taking the "easy" or convenient way out and passing through the drive through to pick up crap. Believe me if someone had said to that child "hey lets go home and make homemade pizzas" those kids would have jumped on it. The hold you believe that these fast food companies have on children is not nearly as strong as their desire to eat at a real dinner made by people who care about them. When it comes down to it its not really about food at all. Its about the lack drive, discipline and confidence that is required to raise healthy kids. Many of the parents I worked with simply didn't have the interest or energy to create healthy kids. This was the way they were raised so why not carry on in the same manner. Most couldnt muster up the energy to do what we as healthy functioning parents do on a regular basis. Many were suffering from mental health issues and very poor self esteem. Regulating fast food companies is not going to change this. Its a band aid solution. We have a much greater problem here in the united states. One that has started long ago when individuals were made to feel powerless about the choices they make for themselves and their children. We need to stop blaming corporations for doing this and start looking at the devil in disguise.

November 7, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJaime

I completely agree with you that McDonald’s has been the trend setter in fast food advertising that targets children. I’m also so happy that you acknowledge the fact that simply limiting a child’s screen time isn’t a viable solution by itself. McDonald’s has found so many insidious ways to get to children by going around their parents. The corporation’s involvement in schools through “nutrition education” and fundraising for its stingy donations to Ronald McDonald’s Houses that you pointed out is still mind boggling to me! A place of education should be separate from the influence of advertising, especially when the products ultimately harm kids.
I don’t understand how parents have become the ones criticized for their so called lack of ability to say no. As Joy said, sometimes there are truly no other options for some parents. This is clearly the result of a broken food system, but McDonald’s advertising only further exploits the issue. It often specifically targets children who are too young to understand that they are begging for food that will make them sick and whose parents have low incomes. Parents shouldn’t hold all the responsibility in this situation that McDonald’s has created.

June 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnna Roberts

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