Back in September, 2010, First Lady Michelle Obama gave a remarkably pointed speech to the National Restaurant Association (NRA). In it, she chided the industry for its almost uniformly unhealthy children’s menus, which typically offered nothing but fried, cheesy and breaded items like chicken nuggets, French fries and mac-n-cheese.
offer healthy menu options and then provide them up front so that parents don’t have to hunt around . . . These choices have to be easy to make and they have to give parents the confidence to know that they can go into any restaurant in this country and choose a genuinely healthy meal for their kids.
One year later, the NRA responded to the First Lady’s challenge by launching its Kids LiveWell initiative, which promised to improve the offerings on children’s menus at over 15,000 chain restaurant locations around the country. Under this voluntary, self-regulatory program, restaurants committed to offering at least one full children’s meal and one individual item that met certain caloric limits and which also included healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains or lean protein. Consistent with Mrs. Obama’s request, they further promised to both promote these healthy options and make them easy for parents to find.
Back then, I applauded the initiative, as did most other health advocates, but I also cautioned that “since the usual burgers, fries and pizza will still be offered to kids at these restaurants, it remains to be seen how well the healthier options are promoted; a turkey sandwich buried on a menu that highlights junk food is little more than a cynical PR move.”
Today, five years after the launch of Kids LiveWell, more than 150 restaurant chains with 42,000 locations are participating in the program. But has it really changed the nutritional profile of children’s menus? According to a new study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, the answer appears to be: not so much.
Looking at 15 Kids LiveWell participating chains, researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that the average restaurant kid’s meal in 2015 still contained twice the calories recommended for small children and more than 60 percent of their recommended daily allotment of sodium. And while many restaurants have laudably shifted away from offering soda as the default beverage in children’s meals, the researchers noted that soda is often replaced by other sugar-sweetened beverages such as flavored milk, sweetened teas and sports drinks.
It’s important to note that there’s no evidence Kids LiveWell participants aren’t living up to their commitment. Rather, the thrust of the Harvard study is that this commitment alone – a promise to improve just one full meal and one side – isn’t nearly enough to meaningfully alter the children’s menu landscape.
After reading the Harvard study, I randomly looked up the current kids’ menu at Chili’s, one Kids LiveWell participant:
While it’s great that kids can now get grilled chicken at Chili’s, that healthy entree is still clearly an outlier in a sea of unhealthy fare. And if a parent makes the mistake of actually showing their child the Chili’s kids’ menu, I wish them the best of luck in selling that grilled chicken cutlet over a burger, pizza, fried nuggets or mac-n-cheese – at least without a loud tantrum ensuing.
In this respect, the Kids LiveWell program is reminiscent of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), another purely voluntary industry self-regulatory program relating to kids and food. CFBAI members, which include almost every major food manufacturer, each take a pledge not to market unhealthy foods directly to kids under 12. But while members have excellent “letter of the law” compliance with the program, the CFBAI’s internal standards are so weak that they’re still fully able to market “healthy” products like these to children:
The bottom line is that both the restaurant and processed food industries are for-profit enterprises. Neither will risk a huge drop in sales by putting themselves significantly ahead of our current unhealthy food culture – even if they each played a major role in creating that culture. So long as American kids are clamoring for hot dogs and fries in chain restaurants, or for Froot Loops and Gushers in the grocery aisle, these industries will make absolutely sure those items are both offered and marketed to them.
And any self-regulatory scheme to which these industries submit will inevitably contain enough wiggle room to accommodate that hard truth.
[Ed. Update: The original headline of this post, “The Restaurant Industry Promised to Clean Up Kids’ Menus. It Didn’t.” has been edited to more accurately reflect the contents of the post.]
Do you love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Follow TLT on Facebook and Twitter! You can also subscribe to Lunch Tray posts, and be sure to download my FREE 40-page guide, “How to Get Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom.”