Thursday, July 28, 2011

The "New" McDonald's Happy Meals: Apple Slices in the Trash?

This week Michelle Obama proudly stood next to WalMart's executive vice president Leslie Dach as the chain and several others vowed to open stores in USDA designated "food deserts."  Almost all of these stores were already planned when the First Lady inaugurated her campaign against childhood obesity, and the total of 250 to 300 stores WalMart pledged to open within five years weren't mainly in response to a lack of fresh vegetables, but the healthy American desire for profit.  Only now, they'll increase it a lot more, on the backs of taxpayers, who will be subsidizing these new markets to the tune of $35 million this year and--hold onto your hats--$330 million in 2012.  Food Deserts: Helping to increase the urgency of raising the debt ceiling.

Then today, the New York Times featured a story on McDonald's completely altruistic move to cut French fries in Happy Meals by half, substituting three to five apple slices.  The company said it was making the revision "in response to parental and consumer pressure," phasing out Apple Dippers (8-10 slices with caramel dipping sauce) but offering families who eschew fries two smaller apple packs instead.  Parental pressure was not strong enough, however, to inspire the company to cease tucking colorful toys in their Meal boxes, despite some cities' passage of laws restricting their inclusion.

Some consumers scoff at McDonald's efforts to improve the healthfulness of their meals.  They feel their liberty to choose what they want to buy somehow compromised, as if eating high-salt, high-fat, fried-potato fast food is symbolic of freedom from a "nanny state" determined to make decisions for them.  Others suspect McDonald's vow to shave 20% of Happy Meal calories and include less salt and more veggies is simply a clever way to prevent government imposition of even more sweeping, and likely expensive, nutritional requirements for kids' meals.

As it is, there's still plenty unhealthy about those smiling red box lunches youngsters eat under the Golden Arches.  Happy Meals come September will contain a burger or Chicken McNuggets, the smaller pack of fries, apple slices, toy and choice of beverage--which includes sugar-packed, vitamin-free soft drinks as well as 1% milk and lowfat chocolate milk.  By popular demand.

While it could be that McDonald's is modifying its Happy Meals now to prevent legislation forcing their improvement, and despite the change being so minor that New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle calls it a "sham," the corporation's steps are in the right direction.  It says it will set up advisory boards and phone apps for consumers to get nutrition information, embark on a national "listening tour" for feedback, and involve a third party evaluator (for as-yet-unannounced goals). 

They act despite little evidence that Happy Meals fueled the increase in childhood obesity; after all, they've been offered for 30 years-- since long before childhood obesity rates jumped in the last decade to the present 17%.  Rates for children rose slowly until 2000, peaking in 2003, according to CDC statistics.  Rates of "overweight" in the population have remained constant over time since the 1960s, however--important to note since few health dangers are associated with being "overweight," and articles and alarmists tend to lump together figures for both overweight and obesity.

Also, the literature tends to talk as if Americans have little control over their "poor lifestyle choices," which are the faults of food manufacturers, restaurateurs, cheap school districts that slash P.E. and sports programs, and those eeeeevil inventors of the personal computer, who've parked those kids yearning to be free in front of Hulu, College Humor, Facebook and Stumbleupon. Children have been receiving health education by state mandates for generations; it's not ignorance of the square, pyramid or plate of an ideal diet that has enlarged our citizens against their wills.  And plump is not the desired physique: Hollywood sylphs are still the role models that sell plenty of People and Us Weekly magazines at check-out counters.

Whatever McDonald's motivations for moving toward better nutrition in its offerings, we consumers ought to applaud the result.  After all, these efforts are undertaken for the most noble of reasons--doing well by doing good.  The company seeks to profit, and the way to do it under our free enterprise system is by providing the public something they want enough to pay for.

Does the public want healthier fast food?  Probably not, and if that is born out, McDonald's, like any smart business, will respond.  "McDonald’s has offered apples as a requested choice in Happy Meals since 2004," the company writes in their press release. "And, while recent research found that on average, 88 percent of McDonald’s customers are aware of the option, apples are chosen in only 11 percent of Happy Meal purchases."

At least they're honest--even as they succumb to pressures to health-up their offerings, they can't ignore the primary determinant of their success--the preferences of their customers.  I'd speculate that the trash cans of McDonald's everywhere will contain a lot of apple slices inside those discarded red Happy Meal boxes.  Kids don't clamor for McDonald's to get sliced fruit.

But let the market prevail, and let the nation save the $330 million earmarked next year to make sure apple slices (and other fruits and veggies) can be bought within a mile of all urban residents. That's the definition of a "food desert''--no fresh-food store in walking distance.  Is that the reason so many people are obese, or is it because they choose to buy other types of food at the stores they do patronize?

The do-gooders in government are likely off-track in assuming they know the causes for the rise in obesity between 1980 and 2000, and further assuming that they can manipulate the public back to its formerly svelte proportions with store locations, restaurant menu options, and praise for athletics.  There's much more to understand about the reasons why Americans are fatter (though overall no less healthy), but in the meantime, if McDonald's cuts back the fries and slices up some apples, the kid consumers will decide if that's really a happy meal.

Monday, July 25, 2011

NY Gays Tie the Knot: What's Lost by Re-defining Marriage

When 84-year-old Connie Kopelov was wheel-chaired up to the Manhattan City Clerk Sunday for the first legal gay marriage in the state of New York (to Phyllis Siegel, 76), it was a touching scene of two elderly women publicly cementing their 23-year-long love.  Who could deny these ladies a recognized connection?

Why shouldn't Alvin Woods, 27, and Antonio Lopez, 25, enjoy the public revelation of their tattooed wedding rings at their legal linkage?  For these and the other happy couples newly wed in New York, to headlines celebrating the ability of same-sex partners to become "like everyone else," it's a day to proclaim love.

What could possibly be wrong with that?

It's true that people who believe that God gave us His commandments in the Bible--and that God is not to be dissed--won't accept two of the same gender as married.  History, too, would contra-indicate that two of the same sex qualify as spouses.  Dictionaries, at least until very recently, defined "marry" like mine does: "1. to join as husband and wife; unite in wedlock, 2. to join a man to a woman as her husband, or a a woman to a man as his wife... (Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language)"

But why not just change things?  History is no argument to continue an archaic institution; civilization is the story of improvement--for example, women now fulfll their potentials in far more than motherhood or as support for their men (or librarians, teachers, nurses and secretaries, the only four professions expected for women as recently as the mid-1960s).  Those who want to hold by the Bible's dictates don't have to participate in gay marriages, and dictionaries are easily re-written.

Certainly that's what's coming.

But in declaring the union of two men or women as exactly the same as the marriage of opposite genders, we lose an important distinction that in other areas we wish to preserve: male and female.  With gay marriage legally sanctioned, we are to believe that sex between two lesbians has the same consequence for society as sex between a man and woman. Male plus male? Male plus female? Female plus female?  It's all the same in marriage, under New York law.

Here's the hitch: In elevating gay relationships to be equivalent to straight marriages, we proclaim that it is no longer worth society's endorsement for a child to be raised by his or her biological parents. We no longer assert that our nation is best served when children live with their natural mothers and fathers, together.

Research on outcomes for children without that benefit suggest otherwise. Children raised by single parents, or in combined families, or by gay couples can certainly emerge healthy. However, in no gay family could a child be raised by both biological parents.  Kids learn different things from a mother and a father.  And have least complications when that mother and father are their own.

For that reason, the nation has a stake in promoting married biological families.  "Every major social pathology that can trouble an American child happens more often when his or her parents are not joined by marriage," writes Maggie Gallagher in The Meaning of Marriage (2006), "more poverty, dependency, child abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse, suicide, depression, mental illness, infant mortality, physical illness, education failure, high school dropouts, sexually transmitted diseases, and early unwed childbearing, and later on, divorce."

When we re-define marriage as the union of any two people who love each other, we change the focus from our nation's future to warm touchy-feelies of love, in the present.  We lose a long-term perspective, substituting a carpe diem, emotional priority.

As a nation, we need children to grow up with optimized chances to succeed, earn money, and create further happy families.  We like it when gay citizens can live with those they love, and feel respected.  But that's not the government's business or job--let religious officials, friends and family declare these unions permanent and appreciated.  Don't make these people go through expensive public courts to dissolve them when they fail, since their existence, while adding to personal satisfaction, contributes little to national goals that governments control.

Sari Kessler and Erika Karp were married 12 years ago in their synagogue by their rabbi. But that wasn't enough for them, despite having three daughters, ages 9, 6 and 3.  "People need to know we're just like everyone else," Sari Kessler said in explanation for why she is "absolutely elated" to gain legal married status. "Our families are just as valued and important and special as any other family in the world,'' affirmed her bride.

But actually, with all due respect, gay families may be important and special and valued--but not as much by a society with a need to encourage an ideal.  Yet officially, in the six states where gay marriage is legal, they are now just as ideal as marriages with the potential to provide children both a biological mother and father.

And that's what we've lost. We've lost the ability to say, "we have evidence that this is the preferred way to do it; this way, with both a mother and father raising their biological children, provides something our society values more because it offers the best chance to produce children that will turn out whole, well-adjusted and ready to emulate mothers and fathers they've had loving them and each other."

Men and women are not interchangeable.  All the brain research confirms that the genders have fundamental, irreducibile differences that complement each other.  The 1.4% of people who are homosexual deserve to spend their lives with whomever they please.  But we do ourselves and our children a disservice to suggest that the unions they form are the same as heterosexual marriages.

Distinctions serve a purpose, especially when based on replicated research--men and women are different, and the bond they form is different from the bond formed by two of the same gender.  But we're coming to a time when legally, we can know it and even demonstrate it but can't live it.  Now that gay marriages are becoming numerous enough to warrant widespread research and analysis, we'll soon have data, and from what studies I've seen so far, I suspect academics will confirm that yes, marriages of, say, lesbians are dfferent from, say, marriages of gay men. When we must deny reality, that will surely be a big loss.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Weather, Weather, Debt Ceiling, Shooting, Weather

The financial world may collapse imminently, according to my husband and the many nail-biters watching the stand-off between Pres. Obama and John Boehner on the debt-ceiling vs. spending cuts.  The stalemate in world views (raise the limit but with new taxes vs. spending cuts) could bring down the US credit rating, which in turn means we pay more interest immediately on what the US has already borrowed, never mind what extra credit we have to take.  There goes the stock market.  There goes stability, which brings more job cuts, lower housing prices, and Americans' nest eggs cracked and oozing.

Meanwhile, horrific events in Norway have blasted the tranquility of that happy, quiet country, killing at least 92 in an Oslo blast and a heinous shooting of youngsters on the isle of Utoya.  At first blamed on Muslim jihadists, (because they eagerly jumped in to grab the credit), the jaw-dropping display of human monstrosity by Anders Behring Breivik is too surreal to contemplate. Identified as an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant extremist, the perpetrator--who cannot get the death penalty since Norway has none--curiously chose to deliver his message by decimating privileged Norsk teen summer campers rather than a Muslim target.

And then there's the weather. Weather, weather, more weather. Hot enough for you?

I live where the weather's also on the newspaper's front page--because it's so unseasonably chilly.  Summer gave Seattle a snarky tease on July 4th, then decided to ship out to the Midwest and east, leaving us under a gray, shivering blanket.  Drizzles, jackets.  I wrote to a friend in New York the other night wearing three layers of sweaters and my down coat--inside at my desk--with the space heater going full-blast.

You can't focus on the shocking realities of the political sphere, or the spectacularly awful events in Norway when physical needs intrude uncomfortably.  If your air conditioner died and you're adding ice cubes to your bath, or even if you're like me, tired of wearing thermal underwear, the situation now reveals the nature of our attentions, to our own needs first, often to the exclusion of anything else.  With the heat dome sealing our priorities, even a renewed deep recession, and reminders that bizarrely unpredictable events can snatch away life, crouch in the background.

Today, we experienced some warmth and a breath-taking view of Mt. Rainier, and our Sabbath guests cautiously lauded the day's beauty, unwilling to assume summer has actually arrived (the prediction is for a second nice day before more rain). But we're blessedly free of humidity, and keenly appreciative not to live in Atlantic City or Washington, DC . As one friend said, "I can always put on another sweater."

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Coffee: for Seattle and the Soul

Coffee.  It's what Seattleites like me think of on a day like this: gray, drizzly, cool.  The rest of the country may be sweltering, but we're hunkered down (again) with our noses perched above steamy mugs, not just warming our nostrils but inhaling the aroma, assessing the brew's perfection. Or lack thereof.

Perfect coffee started here, in a small shop at the Pike Place Market that expanded to 17,000 outlets, 11,000 of them in the U.S. I'm talking, of course, about Starbucks, loved by most, eschewed by some, but undeniably the force that made taste complexities, mouth-feel, aroma, and presentation style of coffee drinks important to the masses.

My husband requires coffee to start his day. Black. When we had a morning ceremony with breakfast welcoming our baby boy into the Jewish faith nearly 19 years ago, my husband insisted on good coffee.  Starbucks was relatively new in Los Angeles, our home at the time, but we went out of our way to get it.  People kept telling me how delicious the coffee was, and it changed the ambiance of our whole event.  Just as it changes the outlook for every day.

An article recently in the New York Times describes the mania the popularization of excellent coffee has unleashed. The piece is about the rush to capitalize competitive coffee roasters who seek to top off what is arguably the most sophisticated array of coffee offerings ever.  For example, Stumptown Coffee Roasters of coffee-competitor Portland, Oregon, mentioned in the article, currently features Guatemala Finca Semillero-Tekisic, traced to a five-acre family farm (The Zelaya family's at Finca Semillero) and a special bean, the Tekisic, which is "a dwarf mutation of the Bourbon varietal," blah blah blah.  The result? "Honeysuckle and butter interweave through flavors of nectarine, cocoa and graham cracker."

Caffe Vita, a local Seattle roaster is similarly descriptive. For example, its Sumatra bean from the Gayo River produces "A rich, aromatic cup with well balanced flavors of dark berry, vanilla, baking spice, smoke and earthiness. Accented with notes of tobacco and hops throughout the warm, comforting finish."  Another Seattle homie, Zoka Coffee, offers "Sulawesi Totaja Jaya...from the Rantebua Disctrict in the Nothern Toraja province of Sulawesi," with flavors of  "Summer Squash, Honeydew, Chamomile, and Portobello."

To appreciate the contents of one's mug in Seattle means to know the name of the family who owns its land of origin, the history of its cultivation and roasting, and details of its first taste through lingering post-swallow notes.

Coffee writer Oliver Strand asks, "Does this sound too elitist for the average American?" rhetorically answering, "Remember when the idea that millions of people would spend $5 for a latte seemed absurd?"

We live in a suburban Seattle town of 22,000, and we have 5 Starbucks outlets, a Tully's and an independent drive-through kiosk. It is normal in our overcast part of the world to nurse a cuppa joe at (nearly) all times. Certainly while shopping. Often a coffee cup is seen perched near exercise equipment, next to the Nalgene water bottle.

Studies released this month show that drinking at least four cups of coffee per day brings health benefits, significantly lowering one's chances for Alzheimer's, certain cancers and perhaps diabetes.  It's definitely an antioxidant, though decaf doesn't seem to confer the same benefits as regular caffeinated  brew.

The big drawback for me was taken as the name of a coffee kiosk chain here in the northwest: "Jitters."  It's an unpleasant buzz that interferes with my normal peace.  Also, for me, coffee is a food.  Unlike my purist hubby, I doctor my mug with copious sugar and half-and-half.  The "enorme" Mexican Mocha I got instead of breakfast at a Nordstrom's espresso bar was listed on the menu board at 790 calories (photo, right).

Did the calories posted in red deter me? Not at all.  I want what I want.  And I'm not the only coffee drinker in our region who's determined to have her drink exactly the way she enjoys it most.  The string of adjectives many customers feed baristas was even the subject of a local insurance company ad profiling weird Northwest types, this one the "super long coffee orderer" (hear it here).

Coffee in a morose climate not only elevates the spirits with nervous energy, but roasting, brewing and serving it becomes a culture that gathers people together.  Classes are held in Starbucks stores.  Independent coffee houses boast unique blends, weekend music, latte-foam designs, and a strong connection to their neighborhoods.  Of course, there's free wi-fi.

And here, to grab a coffee is to come closely face-to-face with some very uniquely adorned folk.  Multiple facial piercings, lavish tattoos and creative garb under their aprons are de rigeur.  Along with unflagging cheerfulness and a very serious dedication to the nuances of coffea aribica.  Even vaccuum-pumped coffee at the supermarket or corner bagel joint has to have a card proclaiming the liquid's fancy name and special qualities.

I host a class weekly in my home, and of course strive to please with excellent coffee.  Brag: some of the members say they come not only for the enlightenment but the flavor of my java.  I watch the participants compose their cups: one puts her half-and-half and flavoring in the cup first, then adds decaf, no stirring.  Others want caffeinated, with milk, or soy, or what-have-you, in their particularly favored mugs.  Coffee is a comfort not only because it warms from within, not only because it delights several senses, not only because it provides a welcome kick in our cloud-darkened town, but because it allows us to have one small part of our day that goes exactly as we desire.

Now, I wouldn't mind if we got a little summer sunshine.  I'll just put some ice cubes in my cup and an even bigger smile on my face.