Health | February 2011 | By Sam Oches

Time to Move

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Rusty Coco, co-owner and chief food officer of Jason’s Deli, supports Obama’s initiatives to “rethink” food, saying it’s especially imperative to get kids to eat healthy.

“You’ve got to get really creative to attract kids,” Coco says. “You can’t just put an apple in front of them and say, ‘Hey, this is good for you.’ Creativity in kids’ menus is something we’re looking at. When you’re fighting salt and fat in the taste buds, you better bring something better than a plain old apple.”

Kass says there is some “low-hanging fruit” that quick serves can take advantage of in their restaurants to gradually improve childhood nutrition.

“As a chef, I know that if I were to take out half of the sugar and half of the salt in what I cook tonight, just like that, I might be looking for another job,” he says. “If over time I take out 5 percent of salt or 5 percent of sugar over the next five years, each year, nobody will know the difference, and I’ll be able to keep my job.”

Many quick serves have already taken steps to improve the nutrition of their kids’ offerings. Burger King added BK Fresh Apple Fries to its kids’ menu and restricts the nutrition of its BK Kids Meals to meet USDA recommendations. McDonald’s rolled out Happy Meal Choices in 2004, which offers healthier items like Apple Dippers and 1 percent milk with its signature kids’ meal. And Wendy’s added mandarin oranges as an option on its kids’ menu.

In addition to industry leaders, nearly two-thirds of all quick-service operators surveyed by the NRA said they offered more nutritious kids’ options than they did two years ago. And on the NRA’s “What’s Hot in 2011” survey, nutritious kids’ dishes were the No. 4 menu trend of the year, while children’s nutrition was No. 6 and fruits and vegetables as kids’ side items was No. 18.

Eat’n Park, a Pittsburgh-based quick serve, looked beyond its menu in its efforts to support the “Let’s Move!” campaign when it launched its LifeSmiles program in November. In conjunction with the campaign’s four main goals, the concept is offering healthier kids’ options in its stores; sponsoring physical-activity events; pairing with chefs to educate kids within schools; and working with a local food bank to help offer more fresh produce.

“We’re not saying, ‘We’re only going to offer healthy foods,’ and I think that’s where we, as part of the four pillars, are empowering parents and kids with healthy choices,” says Brooks Broadhurst, senior vice president of food and beverage for Eat’n Park Hospitality Group. “Providing people with choices and educating people about what is healthy food and how to stay focused on your diet, that’s about what we can do.”

Indeed, the quick-serve industry still operates under the “consumers choose” business model, and less-healthy hamburgers, french fries, and chicken tenders remain on kids’ menus. “I think that largely, consumer demand is going to drive the change,” McGlockton says. “Unfortunately, we’ve offered healthier items in the past and people haven’t eaten them.”

Coco made waves in the industry when he removed trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, and MSG from the Jason’s Deli menu a few years ago. While he agrees consumers deserve the right to choose what to eat, he says that the heavy emphasis companies put on unhealthy items like burgers and fries is dangerous.

“I believe in balance, but I do believe in transparency,” Coco says. “It’s not fair to the consumer to advertise this stuff without letting the public know what it’s going to do to them and what’s in it. I think we’ve got imbalance.”

Kass—who “applauds” the quick-serve industry for supporting the new menu-labeling mandate—says the industry has more sway than it admits in getting consumers, especially kids, to eat healthy food.

“There’s no question that the quick-serve industry responds to what consumers want, but there’s also no question that the industry helps shape that demand as well,” Kass says. “They know exactly how they can influence sales and what’s being bought, and I think there’s absolutely a role for using the power of marketing that they have to help consumers make different choices.”

Kass says even though the industry has yet to significantly participate in the “Let’s Move!” campaign, only time will tell when everyone across the country will recognize the need to fight childhood obesity.

“We don’t have forever, but we’re continuing to work and hope that in the near term, not in the long term, we have people who really start to step up and make a commitment,” he says. “If we start to get that momentum, particularly within the quick-serve restaurants, we’re going to accomplish all of the things that we need to accomplish.”

Photo by Samantha Appleton

Q&A with Sam Kass

How much interest is there from restaurants in “Let’s Move!”?

“I know for a fact that restaurants are working hard to figure out all of the things that they can do to improve their menu and their offerings. The First Lady knows that it’s going to take incremental change over a long period of time to get what we’re serving to be the best that we know it can be with the frame of kids and families. It’s not just a kids’ menu, it’s what a family eats when they come into a restaurant because kids are not eating outside the context of their family.”

How much of a responsibility do quick serves have in serving healthy foods to kids?

“We know that there’s nobody raising their kids but parents, and parents have the responsibility to make decisions that are best for their kids. But there’s no question that restaurants, and quick-serve restaurants specifically, have the responsibility of giving parents the greatest opportunity that they can to make the best choices that they can.”

How important is it for quick serves to be involved in “Let’s Move!”?

“I think the role of the quick-serve industry is up to the quick-serve industry itself. We’ve created a space for them to become part of the solution, and we are very hopeful and actually expect that they do respond to that. And we think it’s in the industry’s best interest to do so.”

Photo: USDA

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