Director John Lee Hancock’s new biopic The Founder paints an intricate portrait of McDonald’s beginnings, telling the tale of a ruthless businessman’s quest for power and money. But, as happens with any biopic, the story is far more complex than a 90-minute blockbuster could cover.
McDonald’s, under Ray Kroc, in fact, began fundamentally reshaping our food system and food culture, to the detriment of the health of millions of people and the planet. When the lights come up in theaters around the country over the next few weeks, audiences should know that Kroc’s influence as shown in The Founder is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Exploiting children, driving diet-related diseases
The Founder, for starters, barely mentions how Kroc used marketing to children to help turn McDonald’s from a small burger stand in southern California into a global behemoth. In the film, Myra Rosenblatt, one of the first McDonald’s franchise owners, hands out lollipops to kids: This brief scene foreshadows the creation of the most famous clown in the world, Ronald McDonald, and the corporation's development of a full-scale strategy designed to turn children into lifelong customers.
In the decades that followed, the corporation's kid-targeted marketing reshaped the fast food industry and had a devastating impact on children’s health, according to our food policy organization, Corporate Accountability International, and other groups. (The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, recommended a national policy prohibiting junk food marketing to kids.)
From Ronald McDonald and Happy Meals to toy giveaways and McTeacher’s Nights, this fast food giant has continually developed new and what we consider insidious ways to target children. For years, it deployed its clown mascot nearly everywhere that kids are: schools, sporting events and even children’s hospitals.
The result? Rates of diet-related diseases like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease have skyrocketed, as McDonald’s growth and reach have ballooned. Today, a staggering one in three people born in the year 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetimes.
Reshaping the food system into the industrial agricultural machine we know today
Though The Founder reveals Kroc’s transformation of the McDonald’s brothers’ burger chain, it falls short of showing viewers Kroc’s -- and McDonald’s -- wider impact on our food system. In fact, no single entity has done more to shape today's food supply than this company.
For example, when McDonald’s began, it sourced potatoes from 175 local farms for its fries -- Kroc had decided early on to work with a handful of potato suppliers that relied heavily on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. One outcome of that decision was that, today, one of McDonald's primary potato suppliers, J.R. Simplot, is so ubiquitous that it supplies potatoes for much of the fast food industry and is one of the largest private corporations in the country.
McDonald's unparalleled demand for cheap, uniform agricultural products has helped shrink the biodiversity of our crops, driven the consolidation of food corporations, increased the use of toxic pesticides (with devastating impacts on rural communities) and fundamentally reshaped our food system.
Franchising McDonald’s stores, with wide-ranging consequences
Harry Sonneborn, played by B.J. Novak, says to Kroc midway in the film, “You are not in the burger business; you are in the real estate business.” And that line rings true: One of the most interesting and little-known things the film reveals is the scope (and roots) of McDonald’s vast real estate holdings, which, as the basis of its franchise system, has created the perfect conditions for undermining workers’ rights and limiting McDonald’s liabilities.
Kroc set in motion McDonald's franchise structure, which currently claims approximately 5,000 franchise owners globally and holds ownership over 80 percent of the fast food chain's locations. This model has been central to McDonald’s ability to undermine efforts by its workers to unionize and fight for fair pay and better working conditions.
It also places the brunt of the liability and risk for operating stores worldwide on franchisees, even as Corporate calls the shots and collects the rent from franchisees and a portion of their sales. It is no surprise that McDonald’s and its trade associations have been aggressively fighting the National Labor Relations Board ruling that it be considered “joint-employers” with franchisees.
In sum, The Founder brings the reality of Kroc’s food system abuses to audiences worldwide. While this one man had a huge hand in creating a corporate behemoth that has extended itself around the globe, we don’t need to live with the consequences.
People worldwide -- including parents, teachers, health professionals, fast food workers, community members and more and more -- are mobilizing to curb McDonald’s abuses. Entrepreneurs? Those tied to the burger chain can help by pressuring McDonald’s to stop targeting children in schools, end its toxic pesticide drift,and treat workers with dignity and respect. And, should the day come when they start outside businesses of their own, they can learn from the detrimental actions of Ray Kroc and never again view him as a role model.