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Protesters Decry Proximity of Fast Food Outlets, Schools

By Rio Bauce Special to the Planet
Thursday May 28, 2009 - 06:56:00 PM
Protesters demonstrate outside McDonald's in downtown Berkeley.
Rio Bauce
Protesters demonstrate outside McDonald's in downtown Berkeley.

Ten Berkeley citizens and leaders of Corporate Accountability International (CAI) protested in front of McDonald’s in downtown Berkeley Tuesday to draw attention to the restaurant’s proximity to schools.  

It was the day before McDonald’s corporation’s annual shareholder meeting, the protesters having timed their demonstration to publicize the fact that there are five schools located within half a mile of the fast food franchise, including Berkeley High, Berkeley Arts Magnet Elementary, and Maybeck High School.  

“This is not coincidental and needs to stop,” said Todd Anderson, CAI member. “In the midst of this health crisis, McDonald’s should do their part and remove franchises that are near these schools.”  

Edith Monk Halberg, a homelessness activist and substitute teacher, said fast food has affected her students.  

“It is important for school-age children to get good nutrition,” said Halberg. “I have noticed that it affects the behavior and learning capabilities of children. While school lunches in Berkeley are nutritious, not every city has these programs. I hope that the fast food industry measures up to some level of corporate accountability.”  

At the demonstration, local registered dietitian Juliette Simms offered her first-hand experience on the effects of fast food on children.  

“I used to do surgery on geriatric patients,” said Simms. “I have seen children with Type 2 diabetes. When I ask them about their eating habits, many of them eat fast food. McDonald’s advertisements to kids often go under the parents’ radar. If McDonald’s cares about customer health, they need to stop advertising to our kids.”  

“Americans are getting wise to their public relations strategy,” said Anderson. “It is now time for McDonald’s to stop playing their public relations game. We need to focus on zoning laws for these franchises.”  

Attempts to contact Nick Vergis, manager of the downtown McDonald’s franchise, were unsuccessful.  

Simms says that the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) should partner with the City of Berkeley to work on some of these issues.  

“Schools in these school districts can and should work with the city to rewrite the zoning laws,” said Simms.  

Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Mark Coplan said citizens should go to the city if they have ideas.  

“We really count on the city to deal with these kind of issues,” said Coplan. “Many people would like to see the school district be involved in their cause and be carriers for their issue. However, all of our time has been spent on the budget and we really don’t have time for other things. From our standpoint, there are so many good restaurants in the area that the only time students go to McDonald’s is if they don’t have much money.”  

In 1999, the Berkeley City Council passed a moratorium on new “quick service” restaurants and “carry-out” restaurants on University Avenue between Oxford Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way. However, in February 2009, the council revised it to allow construction of new “quick service” restaurants, which include cafes and pizzerias, but continued to ban “carry-out” restaurants, which can include fast food establishments.  

Berkeley Councilmember Jesse Arre-guin said the city is committed to preventing future fast food places on that strip of University Avenue, but can’t remove current franchise establishments.  

“While many people think that McDonald’s should not be there, all the council can do is regulate to make sure that future fast food business don’t construct there,” said Arreguin. “Childhood obesity is a concern and a priority for the city.”  

Corporate Accountability International is a 30-year-old corporate watchdog organization centered in Boston, Mass., that runs campaigns against what they perceive as “the world’s most destructive global corporations.” This campaign is the latest attempt to call on the fast food industry to end their marketing appeals to children, to end their influence on public policy and nutritional science, and to urge them to provide complete nutritional information on all their products.