America's largest dining chain joins the childhood obesity battle, pledging across-the-board menu changes while preserving "craveability"...
"This is a breakthrough moment in the restaurant industry," First Lady Michelle Obama declared on Thursday morning as she joined Darden Restaurants, Inc. CEO Clarence Otis, Jr. to announce a major new commitment to support the Let's Move! campaign. Standing in the wood paneled dining room of an Olive Garden restaurant in Hyattsville, Maryland, filled with parents and kids seated at dinner tables, Mrs. Obama hailed Darden's plan as visionary. (Above: Mrs. Obama during her remarks)
"I believe the changes that Darden will make could impact the health and well-being of an entire generation of young people," Mrs. Obama said.
The company, parent to iconic restaurant brands including Olive Garden and Red Lobster, has pledged to revamp its menu offerings, reducing its calorie and sodium "footprints" by 10% over the next five years, with a goal of a 20% reduction in the next decade. Darden's four restaurants, including LongHorn Steakhouse and Bahama Breeze, will also participate.
Healthier kids' menus will have fruit and vegetables as default sides, and 1% milk will be the default option, with free refills. "Carbonated beverages"--soda and other sugary drinks--will not be promoted, Otis said. Vegetables will be spotlighted on illustrations for the kids' menus, rather than less healthy offerings. Want fries? They have to be requested. The kids' menu changes begin immediately, and will be fully in place by July of 2012.
"Darden is doing what no restaurant company has done before," Mrs. Obama said. "They’re looking at all the food they serve, and they’re asking themselves one simple question: How can we improve the health of American families? And it’s that vision and commitment that brought me here today. I don’t just come out."
Darden serves about 400 million meals annually in 49 states and Puerto Rico, and the initiative is the largest private sector commitment from the restaurant industry for the Let's Move! campaign. It's a big effort from a company that, among other strategies, promotes "A Never Ending Pasta Bowl" for $8.95 at Olive Garden, and all-you-can-eat buffets at Red Lobster.
"This is a massive commitment and it will impact millions of Americans," said Dr. James Gavin, chairman of the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), the foundation created to further the goals of the Let's Move! campaign.
It is equivalent to Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! partnership with grocery giant Walmart, which serves about 146 million customers weekly. The First Lady now has the two largest corporate entities from both sides of the food coin, so to speak, backing her campaign.
Exactly a year ago, during an address to the National Restaurant Association, Mrs. Obama called on America's food service professionals to make the kinds of changes that Darden is promising. That's because half of all food dollars are spent at restaurants, Mrs. Obama said, and one third of all meals are consumed in restaurants: Families eat out a lot.
"Focusing attention on food provided at restaurants is really critical if we're going to reach our goal of ending childhood obesity within a generation," said Melody Barnes, Chair of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
She called Darden's efforts "a full-throated endorsement" of the changes Mrs. Obama has asked the restaurant industry to make, to achieve the ultimate Let's Move! goal of dropping childhood obesity to 5% by 2030. Barnes chaired the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, and Darden's pledges all meet specific recommendations in the Report issued by the Task Force in May of 2010.
Darden's commitment is largely about choices for families, Mrs. Obama said.
"Parents need to feel confident that enjoying a meal at a restaurant doesn’t mean sacrificing their children’s health," Mrs. Obama said. "It’s about giving parents choices -- choices that will make it easier for them to give their children the healthiest possible alternatives."
And the commitment is serious business, noted Gavin.
"It is one thing to make a public statement but something entirely different to sign a binding legal commitment, and Darden has done just that," Gavin said. Darden signed a Memo of Understanding with PHA, and its progress in the initiative will be reported annually. Walmart and other grocers also signed Memos of Understanding with PHA for their pledges to locate markets in food deserts.
First Lady defends Americans' right to splurge...
The First Lady, during the course of her campaign, has often been criticized for what misguided observers believe is an effort to "ban" unhealthy foods. Today, photos of her from the event have been above the banner on Drudge Report, first with the headline "No Fries For You!" and later with the headline "Adult Supervision For Fries!" But during her remarks, Mrs. Obama spoke glowingly about all Americans' right to indulge.
"There is nothing wrong with occasionally splurging on treats and desserts, right?" Mrs. Obama said. "I mean, that’s the fun of being a kid. And quite frankly, it’s the fun of being human. And I certainly have done my share of splurging...it’s a good thing."
Bob McAdam, Senior Vice President, Government & Community Affairs for Darden Restaurants, also stressed the splurge angle during a conference call with reporters after the announcement. Darden is not eliminating guests' favorite foods, he said, but rather "reformulizing" the recipes to cut calories and sodium, in addition to adding more healthy choices to menus.
Is the commitment a game changer? Dr. Marion Nestle weighs in...
Will Americans opt more regularly for the healthier choices, when faced with "splurge-worthy" menu items that are lower in calories? And can the changes in kids' meals have a major impact on obesity rates?
Dr. Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, is one of America's foremost nutritionists and author of five books on food and nutrition policy. Darden's commitment is "a step in the right direction," Nestle told Obama Foodorama, but said she thought the company should have done more.
Darden could have offered a more aggressive, faster approach to revamping childrens' meals, Nestle said. Darden's pledge, specifically, is to "improve the nutritional content of one or more children’s menu items to provide equal or less than 600 calories, 30% of total calories from fat, 10% of total calories from saturated fat and 600 mg of sodium."
That's still a high sodium level, according to Nestle. And all items offered on kids' menus should be healthy, she believes, in order to really impact the prevalence of childhood obesity, pegged at about 17 percent of all children, with higher rates for non-white populations.
"They have a longer way to go," Nestle said. "But to me, it's a recognition that they [Darden] are part of the problem of childhood obesity and they are taking responsibility to try to fix it."
Not promoting soda--what Darden is referring to as "carbonated beverages"--is key, Nestle said.
"The real concern for kids with obesity is calories, so getting the sodas out of there is very important," Nestle said.
All the same, "I could certainly argue that these are bandaids," Nestle said. "The White House view of how you work with the food industry is that you look for increments, and do it in steps, but that's not how I would do it."
The long time frame for changing the sodium and calorie "footprints" is because new recipes have to be developed, according to Darden's McAdam.
"It takes a long time to produce foods that have the same 'craveability,'" McAdam said. "Our real focus is getting the food that we know is good for people to be the food they love."
None of the new menu items even exist yet, McAdam said. And each different restaurant brand will have its own project in doing the "reformulizing." As part of its pledge to support Let's Move!, Walmart also vowed to reduce sodium, fat and calories in its private label foods. The time frame for these changes is similarly long term, and also credited to a need to preserve taste.
Mrs. Obama and her team routinely promote the value of many, many small steps--whether personally or on a corporate level-- as the way to change eating habits and reduce obesity rates. Swap soda for water, Mrs. Obama suggests. Pack fruit instead of cookies. For a corporate entity the size of Darden restaurants, which reaches millions of families, the changes can add up to a significant impact.
Will others in the industry follow Darden's lead?
The White House has worked with all kinds of corporate stakeholders in the food industry that are interested in supporting the campaign, Barnes said. But the First Lady has shown up for few announcements from companies that have unveiled initiatives they say are inspired by Let's Move!. For instance, when McDonald's announced changes to its Happy Meals in July, Mrs. Obama was not on hand to cheer executives on. Instead, she issued a decidedly tepid statement.
The First Lady showing up for Darden's announcement is a terrific incentive for other restaurateurs to follow suit and make changes, Nestle said.
"You hope that there will be lots more steps from Darden's competitors," Nestle said.
Mrs. Obama explicitly expressed this wish.
"I hope that the people who are watching this announcement, particularly restaurants and other companies across the country, will see this and step up in the coming months in the same way that Darden has," Mrs. Obama said. "Even the tiniest mom and pop diner or family-owned restaurant can be a part of this movement."
Mrs. Obama also called on parents to make sure that Darden and other businesses offering healthy choices don't lose customers.
"These restaurants can only keep making these offerings and making these choices and making these business sacrifices if people actually buy them. Right?" Mrs. Obama said. "So parents, we literally have to put our money where our mouths are, so that they keep doing it."
To reinforce this critical point, Mrs. Obama was introduced before her remarks by Cami Morrison, a mother of two who is married to a Coast Guard officer. Morrison offered words of thanks to Darden and the First Lady for making it easier for her to dine out, since she's essentially a single mom when her husband is deployed.
The First Lady's paradigm shift...
Nestle told Obama Foodorama a personal story that highlights just how much Mrs. Obama has shifted America's food paradigm. In 2005, Nestle was invited to Amelia Island, Florida, to give a talk to the CEO’s of major restaurant chains, and among them among was Darden CEO Otis. Nestle was specifically asked to discuss what restaurant chains could do to lessen the impact of childhood obesity. She recommended exactly what Darden is now doing: Offering fruit and vegetables as the default side with kids' meals. Nestle also advised the executives to make all their kids' meals healthier, and to offer smaller portion sizes of entrees at a reduced price point, as well as to cut fat, salt, and calories on menu items.
"I got screamed at," Nestle said. "They told me I wanted to put them out of business, and they said it could never work. Screamed at." It was one of the lower points in her long career, she said, "just terrible."
"It's taken Michelle Obama to make people willing to change," Nestle said.
Mrs. Obama is the only presidential spouse in US history to have such major voluntary commitments from the private sector for a "First Lady" campaign.
After her remarks, Mrs. Obama walked around the Olive Garden dining room, where the families on hand to witness the announcement were happily eating a lunch of Venetian apricot chicken (400 calories). Pasta was also being served, and one boy barely looked up from his spaghetti as Mrs. Obama stood beside him and chatted at length with his mother. She greeted each family at each table before departing. (Above: Mrs. Obama and one of the Darden chefs greet a family in the dining room)
For the record, Darden spent $550,000 lobbying the federal government so far this year, according to the Senate Office of Public Records. Darden is also one of the companies that has received a waiver for the Affordable Care Act, reports the Orlando Sentinel, the corporation's "hometown" paper: "Darden has a health insurance plan for its employees. And, according to the company's statement to the paper, "the waiver allows [the company] to continue to do that as the various phases of the health care law are implemented." Darden's waiver would "apply to 34,000 employees, or about 20 percent of its 174,000-person workforce. Most of Darden's employees work in its restaurants such as Olive Garden, Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse."
The Obama Administration has essentially ended the waiver program, announcing in June that all applications for new waivers and renewals of existing ones have to be in by Sept. 22.
*The transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks is here. The White House press release is here.
The specifics of the pledge:
*Guarantee a fruit or vegetable will be the default side for every kids’ menu item at those restaurants offering a default side on the children’s menu: Bahama Breeze, LongHorn Steakhouse and Red Lobster.
*1% milk will be the default beverage, provided automatically if no alternate beverage is requested. Milk will be prominently promoted on the menu and made available with free refills.
*Food illustrations on the menu will promote the healthy choices for meals and drinks.
*Healthier menu options will be more prominently displayed when possible.
Carbonated beverages will not be displayed on children’s menus.
*Improve the nutritional content of one or more children’s menu items to provide equal or less than 600 calories, 30% of total calories from fat, 10% of total calories from saturated fat and 600 mg of sodium.
Calories/Sodium Footprint Reduction – changes to be implemented by 2016 and 2021
* By 2016, reduce calories by 10% and over a ten-year period by 20%.
*By 2016, reduce sodium by 10% and over a ten-year period by 20%.
*Top photo by Chuck Kennedy/White House; second by Lawrence Jackson/White House