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Seminole students get McDonald's bonus on report cards


By Dave Weber

Orlando Sentinel

December 6, 2007


Report cards in Seminole County elementary schools are doubling as a pitch for McDonald's restaurants, encouraging kids to get free fast food as a reward for good grades.

Officials say they are reconsidering the promotions on school report-card envelopes, which go home every few weeks with about 27,000 Seminole elementary-school children. But the re-evaluation comes only after a parent and a child-advocacy group complained that Seminole County is encouraging poor eating habits at the same time childhood obesity is a growing national concern.

"This takes in-school marketing to a new low," said Susan Linn, director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston-based advocacy group. "We are going to ask that McDonald's stop advertising on children's report cards."

Linn questioned why school officials would approve the promotion and whether McDonald's was sidestepping its own pledge not to advertise in elementary schools. McDonald's was one of 13 large food and beverage companies that signed a Council of Better Business Bureaus pledge that restricts advertising to kids.

The pledge does not take effect until Jan. 1, but the report-card envelopes are intended to remain in use throughout the school year, which ends in June.

Not advertisements?

A McDonald's spokesman says the company is not violating the pledge and views the report-card envelopes as support for schools, not advertisements.

"McDonald's does not advertise in the schools," William Whitman, spokesman for the Illinois-based company said in a prepared statement. "This is a local program in Seminole County, Florida, that promotes academic excellence and rewards academic achievement."

The company said it is interested in good nutrition and encourages children to make good eating choices.

McDonald's officials said Seminole's report-card promotion is unique in Florida and that the company was approached by district officials to take the spot after Pizza Hut dropped out. Seminole administrators said McDonald's covered the $1,700 cost of envelopes and printing, which they say was the district's only compensation.

Seminole schools Superintendent Bill Vogel said he did not understand all the fuss, considering Pizza Hut had a similar promotion on report-card jackets for about 10 years. Still, the district may have second thoughts before deciding in the spring whether to repeat the promotion, he said.

"Based on what has come up, we will definitely look at the whole program when it comes up for next school year," Vogel said.

McDonald's offers free Happy Meals as a reward for good grades to elementary-school students in nine Central Florida counties. While the region's "Made the Grade" program is the only such promotion in Florida, company officials could not say whether it is done in other states. They don't keep a tally of how many meals are handed out locally.

But only Seminole promotes it on the manila envelope that contains students' report cards. In other counties, students learn of the offer from announcements in school, posters at restaurants or word of mouth.

'I was appalled'

No one ever complained about the report cards, Vogel said, until a Winter Springs woman raised the issue this week.

"I was appalled when I received this," said Susan Pag�n, whose daughter, fourth-grader Catherine Griffith, brought the report card home from Red Bug Elementary.

The promotion offers a free Happy Meal to any student who has all A's and B's, no bad marks in behavior, or no more than two absences. A child qualifies for free food by achieving any of those three goals.

But Pag�n said it was an inappropriate reward for good grades, and she resented "being the bad guy" who had to deny her daughter the meal. Pag�n said she rarely takes her daughter to fast-food restaurants and doesn't appreciate the school system encouraging it.

She said she had not noticed earlier Pizza Hut plugs on report-card sleeves.

Orange, Osceola, Lake and Volusia schools say they don't pitch fast-food restaurants on their report cards, although a couple of Lake schools have banks as sponsors for the envelopes -- a tradition that officials there said is decades old.

But some Orange schools do slip reward coupons inside report cards for kids who get good grades, district spokeswoman Kathy Marsh said. At Brookshire Elementary, for example, report cards from time to time might include a coupon for Steak 'n Shake, Aloma Bowling Centers or Ale House, she said. A coupon for free Publix ice cream as a reward for straight A's recently went home with Waterford Elementary report cards.

Promotional materials for businesses and coupon rewards go home with students at other times, too, she said.

Seminole officials say they consider the report-card promotions a "business partnership" rather than an advertisement, which might violate School Board policies that restrict advertising in county schools.

On heels of other controversy

The advertising restrictions came up again recently when Seminole approved testing the controversial new Bus Radio programming on some of its school buses. Officials say they intend to revise the policy to clarify that radio advertising on buses is OK.

Officials boast that they have more than 900 companies on board as supporters of Seminole schools. They often do promotions, such as Mullinax Ford's annual car giveaway to students for good grades and attendance.

But some School Board members said they were unaware -- and somewhat surprised -- at McDonald's report-card promotion.

"Do we receive funding for this program or why are we doing this?" School Board member Barry Gainer asked Vogel in an e-mail after Pag�n's complaint. "It would be easier to defend this if they had some healthy offerings."

Seminole schools have boasted about health-conscious menus in school lunchrooms. The district eliminated trans fats from most foods -- including french fries -- a year ago and is teaching health consciousness in classrooms.

McDonald's says it has improved its menu and that the free meal its stores are offering as a report-card reward is nutritious -- if kids make the right choices. Chicken nuggets, apple slices with caramel dipping sauce and low-fat milk come in at a dieter's delight -- 375 calories and 13 grams of fat.

But kids who aren't partial to apple slices also can choose the less-healthy burger, fries and soft-drink meal, another option under the deal. Calories, fat and sugar content jump considerably with those selections.


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