Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Michelle Obama Urges Restaurants To Join Let's Move!, Offer More Healthy Menu Options

With half of all food dollars spent in restaurants, and kids consuming up to 1/3 of their daily calories in the nation's eateries, First Lady asks for major changes...and pledges to help create 'a culture' where kids ask for healthy foods...
Washington, DC: First Lady Michelle Obama framed her Let's Move! campaign to end childhood obesity as a combination of moral obligation and enlightened business practice on Monday as she addressed about 250 members of the National Restaurant Association (NRA). Mrs. Obama challenged the industry leaders to offer healthier foods on their menus and change their marketing, reminding them that they don't just sell foods, they shape the demand for it. (Above: Mrs. Obama during her remarks)

"We need your help. And we need your help now," Mrs. Obama told the NRA.

The organization represents more than 380,000 food service businesses, from major chain restaurants like McDonald's and IHOP to single diners in small towns. Let's Move! cannot have an impact without changes in the restaurant industry, Mrs. Obama said.

"Even if we give parents all the information they need and we improve school meals and build brand new supermarkets on every corner, none of that matters if when families step into a restaurant, they can’t make a healthy choice," Mrs. Obama said, ticking off the crucial pillars of the Let's Move! campaign.

She pointed out that dining in restaurants is an ingrained American habit, with half of all food dollars spent in restaurants, and kids consuming up to 1/3 of their daily calories in the nation's eateries. The First Lady has used a similar statistical surge argument when she describes the need for healthier lunches in America's schools, frequently noting that about 31 million kids get up to half their daily calories in schools.

Mrs. Obama was greeted with a standing ovation as she arrived in the ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, but the room was very quiet as she spoke seriously but with little drama, despite quoting the grave statistics about obesity, and bemoaning the fact that eating in restaurants can be dangerous for child health.

"Research has shown that kids consume more saturated fat and less fiber and calcium when they eat out," Mrs. Obama said. "And the meals they eat at restaurants have twice as many calories as the ones they eat at home."

Mrs. Obama noted that no matter what kind of cuisine restaurants specialize in--Italian, French, Mexican or American--the kids' menu is usually the same.

"One local survey found that 90 percent of those menus includes mac and cheese -- our children’s favorite; 80 percent includes chicken fingers; 60 includes burgers or cheeseburgers," Mrs. Obama said.

"Some options weigh in at over 1,000 calories, and that’s close to the recommended amount that a child should have for the entire day."

Although she praised NRA's current efforts to make healthier options available, Mrs. Obama announced in no uncertain terms that the group needs to do more, because it is literally shaping the food preferences of the next generation. Humans naturally crave foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat, she said, so offering foods with empty calories only makes things worse.

Get creative with healthy menu items, the First Lady urged--and she was very specific with her advice.

"What I am asking is that you consider reformulating your menu in pragmatic and incremental ways to create healthier versions of the foods that we all love," Mrs. Obama said.

Make healthier foods the default choice, reduce portions...
The First Lady suggested that restaurants eliminate foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt, which have no nutritional value. She suggested substituting wheat pasta for white pasta, halving the amount of butter or cream used in recipes, serving skim milk.

"You could make healthy sides like apple slices or carrots the default choice in a menu and make fries something customers have to request," Mrs. Obama said, adding that she's a French fry lover, and this idea "hurts me."

"We can make a commitment to promote vegetables and fruits and whole grains on every part of every menu," Mrs. Obama said. "We can make portion sizes smaller and emphasize quality over quantity."

The First Lady's call for change was similar to her speech to the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) in March, when Mrs. Obama asked America's major food corporations to re-think their offerings.

"We need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children," Mrs. Obama told the GMA.

An East Wing spokesperson noted the similarities in Mrs. Obama's message to the two groups, and said that the First Lady's remarks to the NRA was a matter of timing. Mrs. Obama wanted to speak to the collective NRA leadership, and Monday's Board of Directors meeting was the first opportunity to do so.

Restaurants must actively promote healthy foods...
Mrs. Obama also gave the same message to NRA about advertising unhealthy foods to children that she gave to the GMA.

"Let’s be clear: It’s not enough just to limit ads for foods that aren’t healthy. It’s also going to be critical to increase marketing for foods that are healthy," Mrs. Obama told the NRA.

"I'm asking you to actively promote healthy foods and healthy habits to our kids."

Mrs. Obama pointed out that with the new requirement in the Affordable Care Act that chain restaurants post calorie information on menus, eventually it's going to be more difficult for eateries to actually sell unhealthy foods--because consumers could well recoil from high-calorie, low-nutrition offerings. She also warned that the cultural tide is turning, and improving menu choices makes solid economic sense.

"When it comes right down to it, this is also about protecting your bottom lines and meeting the demands of your customers," Mrs. Obama said.

The White House will do its part to encourage healthy eating, Mrs. Obama pledged, in order to ensure that restaurants have a wide consumer base for their nutritious offerings.

"We’re committed to helping increase that demand and making it easier for you to do what’s right," Mrs. Obama said.

"We can help create a culture-- imagine this--where our kids ask for healthy options instead of resisting them."

The First Lady received another standing ovation as she finished, and she exited the stage with waves. She'd already met with some of the NRA members before her remarks, and thus she skipped the standard ropeline meet n' greet that often accompanies her appearances.

Senior Policy Adviser for Healthy Food Initiatives Sam Kass and Let's Move! Executive Director Robin Schepper accompanied Mrs. Obama to the NRA meeting.

September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness month, and Mrs. Obama will make two more speeches for the Let's Move! campaign this week. On Tuesday, the First Lady will bring Let's Move! to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Public Policy Conference. On Wednesday, she'll speak to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference.

Response to the First Lady's call to action was mixed...
William Whitman, Vice President of Communications for McDonald's, told Obama Foodorama that he "applauds Mrs. Obama's leadership," but pointed out that the Golden Arches has plenty of healthy options on its menu, including "premium" salads and "apple dippers."

These are served with caramel, and do exactly what Mrs. Obama warns is dangerous: Create an affection for overly sweet foods that have empty calories.

"Quite frankly, all foods can fit within a healthy diet; we advocate an active healthy lifestyle," Whitman said about McDonald's policy.

"I think the premise that there are good foods and bad foods is misguided."

Fries will remain the default option with meals, Whitman said, until McDonald's is convinced that most consumers want something different. He pointed out that McDonald's is the nation's largest distributor of apples thanks to the apple dippers, and said that more salads are being developed. Some of McDonald's salads have calorie and fat counts that are the equivalent of their least healthy burgers.

Consumer demand is driving McDonald's practices, Whitman said, noting that the company has been providing nutrition information for thirty years.

"We can offer all kinds of things on our menus that might be perceived as healthy or better for you, but at the end of the day, if the customer doesn't want that...the industry is going to move in the direction that the consumer wants to go," Whitman said. He added that he eats McDonald's food every day.

Chef Geoff Tracy owns four restaurants in the DC area, and said he agrees with Mrs. Obama's message, although he said it's a "personal choice."

"I don't like the idea of government regulations," Tracy said, and added that he changed the kids' menus at his restaurants only after he'd become the father of three kids--and before Mrs. Obama launched her campaign.

"I was in the business for eight years and never gave the kids' menu a thought, but then I realized there was a market for good kids food," Tracy said. He also co-authored Baby Love, a cookbook on homemade baby food, and pointed out that he'd be "a hypocrite" if his kids menu options were unhealthy.

Now, he offers half size portions of adult menu items, as well as other healthy choices, and grilled pineapple skewers are the default option instead of fries. Mrs. Obama's message about positioning healthy options front and center on kids' menus works, Tracey said, estimating that orders for healthier menu items have increased by fifty percent since he started doing this. He said he still offers mac and cheese, but it's listed on the menu in tiny letters.

Jean Birch, president of IHOP, said her company will soon be coming out with a new childrens' menu, on which all items will be under 600 calories and fruit is the default side. She said the aim is for parents not to have to argue with their kids to get them to order healthier items.

"The whole idea is to not have the fight at the beginning. That makes a lot of sense," Birch said.

Related: Read the full text of Mrs. Obama's remarks to NRA here.

*Photo by Lawrence Jackson/White House