Op-Ed: McDonald's adds literacy commitment to 'Happy Meals'

Posted Sep 13, 2014 by Karen Graham
Fast food giant McDonald's has been leading the way in promoting literacy around the world since 1982, with at least 15 book series in all added to their iconic "Happy Meals." On Aug. 1, 2014, McDonald's India began adding books to their kid's meals.
Happy Meal Books: McDonald s Happy Meal Commercial 2
Happy Meal Books: McDonald's Happy Meal Commercial 2
Screen grab
McDonald's India announced they had partnered with award winning publishers DK and Scholastic Publishers to offer children an educational and entertaining addition to their iconic "Happy Meal."
The 16-book series will include:
Watch me Grow by DK (themed around animals),
WOW by DK (talks about space, ancient history and human body)
Magic School Bus by Scholastic (presents scientific facts through stories and imagination)
Ranjit Paliath, Vice President–Business Operations, McDonald’s India (West and South) said the program, which started on Aug. 1, and will run for two-months, is McDonald's response to the changing attitudes and lifestyles of their customers, as well as an attempt to focus on "children's happiness and well-being."
McDonald s Happy Meal breakfast meal available in India.
McDonald's Happy Meal breakfast meal available in India.
In a statement released by McDonald's, the company said: "Customer focus is at the core of all that we do. We realise that lifestyles are constantly changing around us and Happy Meal is yet another way in which McDonald's is providing choices, keeping in step with its consumer needs. Toys have long been a part of the Happy Meal experience, and continue to be. We are constantly looking for opportunities to bring families and children with offers that add more value and are exciting, fun and educational too."
Paliath also pointed to McDonald's global initiative in championing happier and healthier children with the goal of supporting parents in inculcating good reading habits among children at an early age. He stressed that "this global book strategy represents a system-wide 'iconic' move for us."
India's literacy rate today
On Jan. 9, UNESCO released the "EFA Global Monitoring Report, 2013-14: Teaching and Learning: Achieving quality for All." The report showed that 10 countries worldwide, including India, accounted for 557 million, or 72 percent of the global population of illiterate adults. India has the largest population of illiterate adults in the world, 287 million or 37 per cent of the global total.
UNESCO's drive to insure "quality of education" for all children in India has seen great strides, with 99 percent of children in school because of the Right to Education Act. UNESCO's New Delhi director Shigeru Aoyagi, speaking at a luncheon pn January, said India was experiencing a challenge in the quality of education, pointing out the need for well-educated teachers. "The most crucial agents of quality education and learning are teachers and students. Teachers are the most important element that can improve the quality of education," he said.
Almost all Indian children  know how to read. It is the adults that need help in learning to read.
Almost all Indian children know how to read. It is the adults that need help in learning to read.
Delhi education minister Manish Sisodia, also spoke, saying how important it has become to change the context of the textbooks today, making the content more relevant so that "future generations are more aware" of the various issues prevalent in society today. And that is just what McDonald's India is attempting to accomplish by the choice of publishers and the titles in the book series being given out with their ":Happy Meals."
McDonald's still being lambasted by critics
In a country like the U.S., with watchdog groups observing everything from what dish detergents are being used to what we eat and drink, McDonald's have their share of checks-and-balances to keep track of their corporate doings. Jesse Bragg is the spokesman for corporate watchdog group "Corporate Accountability."
In October 2013, when McDonald's announced they were planning to distribute 20 million books in their "Happy Meals" in the U.S. during the two-week period between Nov. 1 and 14, Jesse Bragg was not impressed. Besides lambasting the fast-food giant for the quality of the iconic "Happy Meal," Bragg also jumped up-and-down over the choice of books and their characters,
In 2010, McDonald's handed out the "American Girl" series, and in 1988, there was a version of Beatrix Potter's "Peter Rabbit" added to the "Happy Meals." But the four-book series to be handed-out in 2013 had McDonald's own characters, including a goat, ant, dodo bird and, a dinosaur. The books included titles like, "The Goat Who Ate Everything" and "Doddi the Dodo Goes to Orlando." The main focus was on nutrition, imagination and active play.
Said Jesse Bragg, "It's definitely more of the same. It's just a way to get their brand in front of kids in a very subversive way." Bragg said that in an ironic way, the books leave kids with the idea that the Happy meals are healthy to eat. "But we all know that fast food is a big driver of childhood obesity."
Poverty, illiteracy and "Happy Meals" in the U.S.
Setting aside the "happy Meal" for a few minutes, and looking at illiteracy in the U.S., it doesn't take a rocket-scientist to understand the tie-in between poverty and the rate of illiteracy in this country. In a 2011 report entitled America;s Early Childhood Literacy Gap, it was reported that of the 19.6 million children under the age of six in the U.S., 43 percent lived in poverty. Further, it was shown that when these children start school, at least half are two-years behind their peers.
According to the report: "Economically disadvantaged children may know only one or two letters of the alphabet when entering kindergarten, while children in the middle class will know all 26. Only half of the children from low-income families can write their own name, while more than 75 percent of children from higher income families can do so." Children from lower-income families are disadvantaged in many ways, from the lack of a nutritious, balanced diet, to one-on-one reading time with a parent to even owning story books.
First Lady Michelle Obama reads  The Cat in the Hat  to children in Ms. Mattie s class at Prager Chi...
First Lady Michelle Obama reads "The Cat in the Hat" to children in Ms. Mattie's class at Prager Child Development Center March 12, during her visit to Fort Bragg, N.C.
U.S. Army
While one study in India showed that in other countries, the average child of six years of age may own six books, in India, the average child owns three or less. In the U.S., 61 percent of low-income families have no age-appropriate books at all in their homes. And this brings us back to McDonald's "Happy Meal."
In India, as well as the U.S., many lower-income families will buy their family fast-food meals, even though it is far more economical to prepare a home-cooked meal for far less than eating out. Even this fact goes back to education. Growing up in poverty, with no one to teach, or show someone there is a better way to do things, only begets more of the same, A parent that doesn't know how to read, or perhaps is only semi-illiterate, is not going to buy books or take their kids to the library. They may not understand that budgeting of family income is necessary to stretching those hard-earned dollars.
So I say "Kudos" to McDonald's for putting books into the hands of many of the children who need them most. As for whether or not the books have McDonald's characters or Dora the Explorer, a book is a door, one that opens on a world of possibilities and adventures. As a grandmother of two, I must confess the McDonald's "Happy Meal" was only occasionally ever part of a day spent with my grandchildren.
But for nutrition value, it is good that McDonald's is listening to their customers, because over the years, we have seen changes, for the better in the quality and serving sizes in the "Happy Meal." Since 2012, McDonald's has been committed to providing better nutritional quality, as well as reducing calorie content in the Happy Meal. As an example of what has been done over the past two years, let's look at some of the innovations.
Since March 2012, the Happy Meal now includes apple slices, fat-free milk, and a smaller-size fry portion, Calories have been reduced by 20 percent. Also, depending on the market location, sides for the Happy Meal now include a side-salad, fruit or vegetable. Drinks now include a choice of milk, juice or water. And just as important, the promotion of McDonald's "Happy Meals is now geared toward generating excitement in eating healthier.