Do the parents of children and corporate executives of fast food restaurants have anything in common? At first glance, you might think the answer to this question is no. Parents are supposed to provide nutritious meals for their children's health, while fast food restaurants offer quick and cheap meal alternatives that are on the low end of the food pyramid ("Look at the Food Pyramid," 2003). There exists an ethical dilemma on the part of parents and fast food executives on their decision to offer and feed fast food to the children on America. This article will touch on the ground rules of serving fast food to children, what could and should be the ground rules of the decision, what are the ethical implications of the decision including health and lawsuit issues, and how might the decision change the ground rules.
The Ground Rules:
Parents are expected to raise children to the best of their ability. To the average person that means provide shelter, put clothes on their back, and feed them healthy food. Fast food corporations are expected to offer employment for many unskilled and low paid workers while making money for their shareholders (many times using whatever means necessary as Enron and WorldCom come to mind). They do this by serving up affordable food. The days of latch key kids and life moving at quicker speeds than ever before, makes it seem that fast food restaurants and parents on the go are perfect partners. But as happens in many seemingly perfect partnerships, questionable decisions have been made that make us challenge the ethics of both parents and fast food firms.
Could be Should be
Fads come and go, but ever since the Henry Ford of fast food named Ray Kroc entered the picture, there has been a race between McDonalds, Burger King, and the rest to reach critical mass by producing food at low prices. This is best done by buying in bulk and usually in less than superior quality. By offering a low quality product, it would seem logical that a business could not survive. Here is where the ethical dilemma starts. Fast food companies found that if they used the proper additives (sugar on french fries etc.), they could make the food palatable and thus keep their market share. The other part of the equation is the value parents place on getting their kids fed quickly and cheaply so they can enjoy "down" time.
The ethical dilemma parents face is that they have can continue to take the easy route and feed their children fast food. They also have the ability to lose "down" time and cook healthy food at home or buy better quality but more expensive restaurant food. Unfortunately, it seems we have picked the former. In a lawsuit filed against McDonalds in a federal court in Manhattan on November 22nd of last year, lawyer Samuel Hirsch alleged that, "The fast-food chain had created a national epidemic of obese children. He argued that the high fat, sugar, and cholesterol content of McDonald's food is "a very insipid, toxic kind of thing" when ingested regularly by young children" (Suit blames McDonalds, 2002).
As with any great marketing machine, the fast food restaurants were prepared for this ethical dilemma. They printed there foods ingredients on menus, they started putting toys in their meals (an incredible marketing ploy that created synergies between entertainment companies and the collectable markets at the same time), super sized their portions, and dropped their prices to pre-1980 levels.
Changing the Ground Rules
Can this decent into a nation of obese children, greedy corporations, and parents who need their "down" time continue? In yet another lawsuit filed, a man became addicted to fast food. According to his lawyer, the food sold by the companies produced a "craving" in his client (Parallax, 2002). It seems that a war that fights dirty (cheap prices, free toys, bigger portions, and addictive additives) can be a hard one to win. Parents can fight back if they exercise a little due diligence; they must follow the five P's. Prior preparation prevents poor performance, this means that meals must be thought of ahead of time, children must be educated in the art of cooking, and they must keep their children active with more outdoor play.
End the Madness
An article in the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics makes some astute observations. They say, "Ethics or morality poses questions about how we ought to act and how we should live" (A Framework, 2003). In this article, I hope the reader has found that both parents and fast food restaurants have not acted in an ethical manner in their pursuit to satisfy profits and lack of time. The article in fact goes on to ask about these relevant questions that substantiate the argument listed above: What individuals and groups have an important stake in the outcome? What is at stake for each? Do some have a greater stake because they have a special need (e.g., those who are poor or excluded) or because we have special obligations to them? Are there other important stakeholders in addition to those directly involved?
If we carefully consider the decisions we currently make in how we feed our children, we will see that we have created an ethical dilemma. The rules were set when the world sped up; we could and should have seen this problem happening if we watched the waist line of our children bulge over their belts. The ethical implications of our decisions to eat fast foods are that we have opened up a lot of trouble for these restaurants. Lawsuits have been served against the fast food firms as they try to satisfy their shareholders quest for profitability, and finally; if parents are willing to just say no to the fast food trap, the ground rules can be changed to favor the good guys; THE CHILDREN.
A Framework for Ethical Decision Making. (2003). Markkula Center for Applied Ethics Santa Clara, Ca. Santa Clara University.
Look at the Food Pyramid. (2003, March 7). Weekly Reader, 72, 2.
Parallax. (2002, August 2). The Journal of Ethics and Globalization. Suit blames McDonald's for unhealthy children. (2002, November 22). Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 8A.
Alycia Shapiro is Vice President in charge of product development for SensoryEdge. She has advocated for special needs children in order to get the therapy services they need. You can visit her websites to learn more about pretend play toy food and wooden toys