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.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Now I can listen to Michael and tap into the good Dr Medved's thoughts. How did I miss this before?
    I hope the youngest Medved has a happy birthday this weekend.