Well, the biggest story in the “kid and food” world yesterday was an announcement by McDonald’s USA of its plan to improve the Happy Meal.
Rolling out in September, Happy Meals around the country will start to contain a smaller serving of fries (1.1 ounces down from 2.4 ounces) and will now automatically contain a bag of apple slices (without a caramel dipping sauce.) Two bags of apples and no fries will be available upon request. In addition, the meals will also offer a new fat-free chocolate milk along with 1% plain milk. The price of the meals is not changing and they will still contain a free toy.
Beyond those basic facts, there has been some confusion in the media about the announcement. One question is whether milk or soda will be the default beverage served.
The New York Times‘s Prescriptions blog initially reported that the “company will offer a choice of milk with 1 percent fat or fat-free chocolate milk rather than soda, although parents can still ask for soda,” while CNN said that “all beverages, including milk, fruit juice, water and soda, continue to be options for the Happy Meal,” and ABC News reported that parents “must request” soda. But Nancy Huehnergarth, Executive Director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, told me last night that a Reuters reporter directly asked this question of the company and was told that soda will remain the default. Reuters has not yet published this fact, but I noticed this morning that the Times Prescriptions post now reads (without indicating that the text has been changed – not cool, NYT!) that “the default will be a cup for soda or water.” (And, by the way, when it comes to those apple slices, at least one media report indicated that instead of a bag of apples, kids might eventually get a bag of carrot sticks, pineapple spears or raisins.)
Bottom line, according to the company these changes will result in “an estimated 20 percent reduction in calories of the most popular Happy Meals, also reducing fat in the meal.” The company also makes a commitment to:
raise nutrition awareness among children and parents through national marketing initiatives. The company will promote nutrition messages in 100 percent of its national kids’ communications, including merchandising, advertising, digital and the Happy Meal packaging. McDonald’s will also provide funding for grass roots community nutrition awareness programs.
Kids’ meals aren’t the only foods getting a makeover. McDonald’s promises to reduce added sugars, saturated fat and calories in all of its menu items, but don’t look for those changes any time soon; the company gives itself until 2020 to rejigger its recipes. (Really? Nine years?) In the interim, it also promises to reduce sodium “an average of 15 percent overall across its national menu of food choices” by 2015 and it says it will make nutrition information more accessible.
There are a few other items in the McDonald’s press release worth noting. McDonald’s uses the occasion to tout its participation in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (but you already know how I feel about that group – see “Fox Guards Henhouse: Industry’s ‘Self-Regulation’ of Children’s Food Advertising“); it promises to set up a “Kids’ Food and Nutrition Advisory Board; ” it says the company will submit to third party verification of its efforts, the results of which will be reported publicly; and, my personal favorite, executives from the company will go on a “listening tour” next month to learn more from parents and nutrition experts on the role McDonald’s can play in improving child nutrition. (Please, oh, please can I get on that tour route? ’Cause I’ve got an earful to share.)
So what’s the upshot here? Corporate white-washing or meaningful change?
In a time of alarming childhood obesity, fast food generally — and children’s meals specifically — face mounting pressure from local governments and consumer groups. San Francisco and Santa Clara County have succeeded in banning toys in fast food meals which don’t meet certain nutritional requirements (which, as I understand it, the improved Happy Meals still do not) and a similar measure has been introduced in the New York City Council. (Meanwhile, Jack in the Box voluntarily dropped its toys last month.) Local governments have sought to pass public health measures directed at restaurants, such as bans on trans fats, or laws prohibiting the construction of new fast food restaurants in poverty-stricken areas. (But the restaurant industry has had success fighting against those measures in state legislatures.) And last month, as reported here on TLT, the National Restaurant Association announced a wide-ranging initiative to improve children’s menus at 15,000 participating chain restaurants, including Au Bon Pain, Burger King, Chili’s Grill & Bar, Denny’s and many more. (The conspicuous absence of McDonald’s from the list was noted at the time – we now know the company already had its new Happy Meal plan in the works.)
So, clearly, McDonald’s saw the handwriting on the wall and knew that the tide of public opinion was turning against a uniformly unhealthy Happy Meal. To have continued to sell it without improvements would have been remarkably tone deaf for a company that prides itself on reading, and meeting, consumer desire.
But in the end, how should we feel about it?
I can already guess that many commentators (and some of my fellow bloggers) will blast McDonald’s for its rank hypocrisy here. A bag of apples thrown into a box containing fries, nuggets and a soda doesn’t magically transform junk food into healthful food. And there is, without question, a lot of bogus, cynically PR-seeking hooey in the McDonald’s announcement, like the “Kids’ Food and Nutrition Advisory Board” (yeah, I’m sure that group will have a lot of influence on its multi-billion dollar master), and the aforementioned “listening tour.” I’m also marveling at the truly Orwellian scenario of putting “nutrition messages” on, of all things, Happy Meal packaging. (Gee, that won’t confuse kids.) And, of course, McDonald’s is steadfastly refusing to ditch the Happy Meal toy, a source of much concern among some children’s health advocates.
So sure, a lot of this feels like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. As Kelle Louaillier, executive director of Corporate Accountability International, said in a CNN story yesterday:
. . . we should be careful in heaping praise on corporations for simply reducing the scope of the problem they continue to create. . . . Ultimately corporate responsibility is not about securing public relations for cleaning up your own mess, but for not creating the problem in the first place. In this case, that means stopping the marketing of junk food to kids.
And there’s another issue to consider. As Kelly Brownell, Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, has already pointed out, this all could backfire terribly. Emboldened by news of a “healthy Happy Meal,” less food-savvy parents might feel more inclined than ever to let their kids eat at McDonald’s. (And perhaps that’s exactly what the chain is counting on.)
But with all that said . . . .
As I reported just yesterday (in a timely coincidence), a new Journal of the American Dietetic Association study shows that more and more of children’s daily calories are eaten in the form of fast food. We may rail against that fact, we may lament the demise of home cooking, we may have grand plans for changing the status quo. But until that day comes, it’s a sad truth that McDonald’s is a regular staple in the diet of many American children. (To put it in perspective, McDonald’s estimates that the aforementioned changes will eliminate 49 billion calories in American kids’ diets annually. If I did my math correctly, that comes to 14,000 pounds of lost body fat each year.)
So would I rather a child be given a smaller bag of fries versus a bigger one? Do I want fruit included in a kids’ meal or not? It would be counter-productive, I think, to take issue with those positive changes just because we (quite rightly) question the purity of the motives behind them. Moreover, let’s not overlook the fact that consumer and legislative pressure pushed a behemoth like McDonald’s in the right direction. Not far enough, of course, but that in itself is noteworthy. The key, then, is to keep right on pushing.
OK, I know you’ve got your own views to share about all this. Let me hear what you have to say.
[Ed. Note: I'm be curious to hear the views of respected, longstanding critics of the fast food industry like Marion Nestle (Food Politics), Michele Simon (Appetite for Profit) and others. As more posts are published about this topic in the coming days, I'll share those links here.]
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