|Los Angeles Times
Orange County Edition
Friday - November 16, 2001
McDonald's Benefit: Kids Happy, but Critics Aren't
By Daniel Yi
|Teachers from 230 Southern California schools were among thousands across the West who flipped burgers and served Happy Meals on Thursday for McTeacher's Night, a fund-raising partnership of McDonald's restaurants with local schools.
What had been an annual event at some McDonald's franchises expanded this year to 1,200 restaurants and as many schools in 14 Western states.
At a McDonald's in Garden Grove, Jennifer Fu, a kindergarten teacher at Woodbury Elementary, filled boxes with french fries and slid them under a heat lamp as the line of customers stretched out the restaurant doors.
"I'm pretty hot back here," said Fu, 25, as she salted the fries. "But I'm fine. It is for our school. The turnout says it all. The kids are so excited."
Cathy Joseph, 45, was at a table eating as son Aaron, 7, nibbled and played with a movie toy that came with his meal.
"It creates a family atmosphere," Joseph said of the event. "It gets the community involved."
The fund-raisers are unpopular, though, with critics of the increasing corporate presence in public schools. They say the partnerships are merely ways for companies to market themselves to impressionable youngsters.
"No matter how much money McDonald's is giving, it doesn't compare to how much they will be making" in customer loyalty, said Emily Heath, senior program director for the Oakland-based Center for Commercial-Free Public Education. "If McDonald's wants to grant $1 million and get a plaque of recognition, that is one thing, but why make it contingent on people buying their product?"
Children are inundated with advertising outside school, Heath said, but "public schools should be different. When we open the doors to corporations, it changes the mission of the schools, which is to educate our children."
Restaurants taking part in McTeacher's Night donate 20% of the evening's sales from designated registers to neighborhood schools. Organizers said they expect to raise $1 million total this year--an average of $800 for each participating school.
Woodbury Principal Barb Stokke said the money is welcome.
"There are so many things we need," she said as she wiped tables Thursday. "Materials for the classrooms, the library. . . ."
Woodbury is one of 30 schools participating in Orange County. In Los Angeles County, 145 campuses signed up this year.
In east Hollywood, more than 100 children from Ramona Elementary School came with their parents to the McDonald's on the 10000 block of North Western Avenue. Children called to their teachers, hugged them and laughed at their cooking caps.
"I think they're all funny-looking," said Maria Guadalupe Espitia, 10.
Principal Susan Leo Arcaris acknowledged criticism over the alliance with the fast-food chain, but said of the young diners, "We can tell them to eat carrots, celery and apples, but it's not going to make a big difference."
McTeacher's Night started several years ago with some franchises and local campuses.
Franchisees in Southern California this year decided to coordinate their efforts and encourage more participation. Corporate officials at McDonald's backed them by pledging $100 to each participating school.
Gov. Gray Davis earlier this month proclaimed Nov. 15 "McDonald's Teacher Night."
Many school officials said marketing and brand names are a fact of life, and if a company gets some recognition for a good deed, what's the harm?
"When a company is willing to do something to support our schools, . . . we are not coercing anyone, and there is no other impact but getting money, I feel OK," said Barbara DeHart, superintendent of Westminster School District, where four campuses participated Thursday.
As long as educators are vigilant about what benefits students and what is purely for corporate gain, she said, "it is a win-win situation."
Neal Ruby, president of McDonald's Operators' Assn. of Southern California and owner of four participating franchises, said the event makes a worthwhile contribution to local schools.
"It is not just about money," he said. "These are my customers. Why shouldn't I be giving back to my customers?"
"Kids like McDonald's. They would have come out anyway," said Ruby, whose trade group represents more than 560 restaurants in Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. "This way, we create a social event and give back to the schools."
The issue of commercial interests at public schools has been hotly debated for more than a decade. Companies say they are helping cash-strapped campuses and promoting education. Pizza Hut and McDonald's, for example, have reading programs through which students who read a certain number of books are entitled to free meals.
McDonald's officials say the corporation also donates millions of dollars to charities, including $200,000 annually for scholarships to Southern California teenagers.
Critics call it marketing disguised as philanthropy.
"It sends a real bad message," said Alicia De Soto-Foley, a program facilitator at Occidental College's Center for Food and Justice, which promotes healthful eating in schools. "The schools are so underfunded, they have to resort to junk food to raise money."
* Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this report.
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