April 25, 2016

Building power, challenging McDonald’s marketing in Houston

Note: Corporate Accountability just wrapped up a four-month partnership with Green Corps, the country’s leading training program for environmental organizers. Six young organizers worked in five cities around the country on the Value [the] Meal campaign. There, they joined forces with local people and organizations to challenge one of the most powerful and abusive players in our food system: McDonald’s. Read on for some highlights from Taylor Billings’ high-impact organizing in Houston, Texas to move hospitals to sever ties with McDonald’s. –Sriram Madhusoodanan, Value [the] Meal Campaign Director

“Alright everyone, smile!” The Harris Health Systems Security Guard took a break from monitoring our rally to snap a quick group photo. The crowd of 20 was quite the crew — we were made up of seasoned activists, new volunteers, parents, friends, and even two passers-by who grabbed posters and joined the rally at the last minute. We had gathered outside of Harris Health Systems that morning to deliver a message from 1,000 people to the Harris Health Board of Managers, which oversees one of the two hospitals in Houston with an on-site McDonald’s.

And their message was this: McDonald’s should not take advantage of children’s inherent vulnerabilities and exploit trusted places, like hospitals, in the process. McDonald’s marketing practices in hospitals, schools, and beyond drive a devastating epidemic of diet-related disease, which disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color in the United States. This crowd — joined by thousands more people across the country — was demanding that hospitals break their ties with McDonalds.

After we wrapped up our action and the media outlets left, our group started to pack up the posters. Phrases of “Happy Meals are NOT HAPPY,” and “Ronald McDonald = Joe Camel” were visible within the pile. This was my last big event with the group, so I ceremoniously passed the collection of homemade and printed posters over to the new lead local coordinators — Tori and Zac.
Tori and Zac seem to have been born organizers. Although neither had volunteered on a campaign before, they quickly became skilled activists and advocates, representing Value [the] Meal at press conferences and recruiting and training new leaders. I couldn’t have been happier to meet such passionate community members who care about the issue and be able to provide them with opportunities to empower others and create a positive change.

The Value [the] Meal campaign addresses so many issues — from the food system, labor rights, public health, and social justice — that people from all walks of life are attracted to the campaign. I’ve been so motivated and inspired to learn why community members become involved in this campaign.

One volunteer in particular — Azeen Anjum — has a great story. Azeen is a first-year medical student at Baylor College of Medicine. As a freshman in college, Azeen became aware of the food system’s abuses. So when she entered medical school in Houston, she was shocked to see that two of the hospitals around the corner from her school hosted the world’s most recognized junk food brand.
Azeen spoke out at our first campaign event and delivered a strong statement about McDonald’s abuses. “The fight against the toxic food environment requires standing up for values,” she said, passionately. “Do we value money and convenience, or do we value the long term well-being of our parents, friends, and children?” Throughout this campaign, we’ve challenged both Ben Taub Hospital and Texas Children’s Hospital to answer that very question — and have made great headway.

Through the determination and dedication of volunteers like Azeen, Tori, Zac, and many others, we’re having a very real impact in Houston. We’ve secured a wave of stories in Houston media (and one even in Idaho!), and have helped build a powerful coalition fired up to protect our children’s health. As I leave Houston, I have no doubt that McDonald’s days in hospitals in Houston, and across the country, are numbered.

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