Today’s students are pecking away on laptops or tablet computers, downloading course materials and assignments, and interacting with fellow students, for credit, by posting in online discussion threads.
In homes equipped with high-speed Internet access, an interactive education is second nature to kids who communicate via Snapchat and text messages. But in neighborhoods where paying $47.32 a month for broadband Internet access (the average bill in the U.S., according to the network-testing company Ookla) is a strain, working on web-based homework can involve camping out somewhere that offers free WiFi.
Access may seem omnipresent to many in 2013, but according to the Pew Research Center, around a third of households with an annual income of less that $30,000 are without broadband access. According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, the children of those households are increasingly turning to McDonald’s.
Despite all of the table space occupied by laptops at your local Starbucks, its network size, at 6,866 locations, pales in comparison to McWireless. With more than 11,500 participating restaurants, “[McDonald’s is] competing with public libraries that offer up free WiFi,” says Steven Renderos of the Center for Media Justice. There are 15,000 libraries that offer free Internet, he tells TakePart. And in an era where slashing budgets has an almost fetishistic appeal to many lawmakers, the hours, staff and even some entire branches of these public institutions are being cut regularly.
The idea of kids having to turn to McDonald’s in order to get homework done, eating a burger or two along the way, hits on two issues the Center has addressed in the past: free public Internet access and childhood obesity. So to build on the Wall Street Journal story, the Center, the Praxis Project, and the Media Action Grass Works Network partnered to start a campaign calling on the Federal Communication Commission to change Internet policy in such a manner that would alleviate the need for kids to pair homework with Extra Value Menu snacks.
Fittingly, the groups chose to discuss what Renderos admits are wonky issues in the lingua franca of the Internet: memes. “We’ve been trying to utilize social media in a satirical way to get the information out there,” says Renderos of the crowd-sourced commentary, which is geared at driving people to add their signature to a letter addressed to the FCC.
Familiar faces from Memeland pop up on the campaign’s Facebook page. Here’s Ryan Gosling saying, “Hey Girl, Put the junk food down. Your internet access doesn’t need to come with a side of fries.” There’s Gael Garcia Bernal saying, “Hey Girl, Your Internet connection is like a pendulum that comes and goes. But don’t worry, it’s possible to live in a society that shares access to the Internet in a just way.” Grumpy Cat would rather you be online at home instead of at McDonald’s. All are tagged #NotLovingIt
According to Renderos, “The target isn’t McDonald’s at all. The letter is addressed to the FCC.” The campaign is most concerned with expanding the access offered at libraries and schools—which Renderos notes is subsidized by taxpayers—and to tweak policies in ways that would make it easier for communities and nonprofits to develop their own broadband networks, for example.
But when buying fast food is a necessary cost—both in terms of health and economics—of some children’s education, a shift toward studying at McDonald’s instead of the library is worrisome from a public-health perspective too. Wade Thomas, vice president of McDonald’s menu innovation team, told the Wall Street Journal last June that drive-through orders account for about 70 percent of the chain’s sales. Those transactions are conducted in a matter of minutes, and the drive-through format doesn’t exactly encourage returning for seconds. But the amount of time spent on homework can measure in the hours: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, parents reported that high school-aged kids spent an average of seven hours a week on homework in 2007, dramatically lengthening the period of time these students are doubling as customers. And the snacking capacity of adolescents is legendary.
At least one McDonald’s franchisee sees these studious customers as a good sales opportunity. Ted Lezotte, who owns four restaurants in Michigan, tells the Wall Street Journal “It’s hard to sit there and watch people eat McDonald’s French fries and not go buy your own.”
Until the day when library hours are expanded again, or when Americans are supplied with free, universal broadband access, there is a healthier—if not more uncomfortable—approach to using a McWireless connection. As reporter Anton Troianovski notes, “Other Internet users stay in the parking lot, where they can take advantage of the McDonald’s WiFi guilt-free and purchase-free.”
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Willy Blackmore is the food editor at TakePart. He has also written about food, art, and agriculture for such publications as TastingTable, Los Angeles Magazine, The Awl, GOOD, LA Weekly, The New Inquiry, and BlackBook. Email Willy | TakePart.com
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