Ticket Replay: Michelle Obama's health reform plan for restaurant menus and families dining out
During the holiday season, as in years past, The Ticket is republishing some of our favorite items from the previous political year. This story was originally published on Sept. 14, 2010:
First Lady Michelle Obama, who has been unable to convince the Smoker-in-Chief to give up that dreadful habit, now has some health suggestions for other American families and for restaurant menus across the country. The goal is to eat healthier, although that might hurt restaurant sales and cause disappointed children.
Obama, who has made combating childhood obesity and inactivity her favored causes, addressed the National Restaurant Assn. (See the text below, along with photos of her husband not eating arugula.) She, of course, has her own personal chef brought in from Chicago and took full parental responsibility for guiding her daughters' diets because parents are crucial habit-formers and role models, even in food choices.
But Obama would like to see more healthy choices for Americans dining out, even if it means a restaurant deleting a best-selling menu item.
The Democrat suggested that Americans are "programmed" by taste and advertising to eat many things that the government and health professionals know are not healthy for their bodies. So she wants to facilitate a nationwide re-programming of personal tastes by having restaurants start serving less of what customers ignorantly want and more of what they should have.
One idea Mrs. Obama had is to serve apple slices as the default side dish with, say, hamburgers, instead of French fries, which she confessed to liking.
Also she'd like less butter and cream in restaurant dinners, not enough to....
Her other suggestions: Substitute whole wheat pasta for white. Smaller portions (presumably for smaller prices). Less mac and cheese, chicken fingers and cheeseburgers on kids' menus. More carrots.
Mrs. Obama expressed concern that Americans are now spending more money on food purchased and/or eaten outside the home, which many in her audience of restaurant business owners likely think is a pretty good thing.
The first lady doesn't mind ordinary families eating out on special occasions. But, she claimed, restaurant efforts to reduce calories and fats have been insufficient. And too slow. "We just don't have the time to waste," Mrs. Obama added.
"As humans, we are programmed to crave sugary, fatty, salty foods," Mrs. Obama told the group.
"And as people who work to meet those needs, I know it’s tempting to respond by creating products that are sweeter, richer and saltier than ever before. But here’s the catch. See, feeding those cravings doesn't just respond to people’s natural desires, it actually helps shape them. The more of these foods people eat, the more they're accustomed to that taste, and after a while, those unhealthy foods become a permanent part of their eating habits."
She said she understood that healthy meals sell less, which is not a good thing for any business. But she said the problem of obesity is so great, it must be addressed urgently by all means.
She said it's also important to change these national eating habits because they end up costing billions in additional healthcare costs.
Grab some cauliflower and savor her full remarks below.
-- Andrew Malcolm
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MRS. OBAMA: Thanks so much. (Applause.) Well, good morning. Let me start by thanking Michael for his work and for that kind introduction.
And I want to also thank Dawn Sweeny and everyone at the National Restaurant Association for having me here. It is a pleasure for me to be with you all.
So today I’m going to talk about food, which is something that all of you here today know a little bit about.
Together, you represent 40 percent of the nearly one million restaurants in the United States, from the biggest chains to the smallest diners. You know what Americans like to eat and what they don’t. You’ve seen how the ingredients we put in our bodies affect the way we feel and the way we feel about ourselves. And you also understand the unique role that food, and restaurants especially, play in our own lives and in the life of our nation.
Restaurants have always been places to celebrate a special occasion or mark an important milestone, to bond with new friends and grow closer as a family. They provide a service to our communities unlike any other. And even as tastes and customs have changed over time, restaurants remain an incredibly dynamic part of our American story.
And today, one out of every two dollars spent on food in this country goes towards meals outside the home -– and that’s double what it was just 50 years ago.
And one-third of all meals today are eaten in restaurants.
So it’s clear that eating out has become part of our American way of life.
And while restaurants are still places where we go to mark a special occasion -– to celebrate a good report card, an anniversary, a job well done –- restaurants aren’t just for those who can afford to splurge anymore.
Instead, they’ve grown to fit every lifestyle and every budget.
And our eating habits have evolved over time as well -– both in restaurants and at home -– but not always in ways that are good for our health.
And that’s another reason I wanted to talk to you today –- about an issue that is near and dear to my heart not just as First Lady, but as a mother -– and that is the epidemic of childhood obesity in America today.
Now, I know you’re all familiar with the statistics: how one in three children in this country is overweight or obese. And you know the consequences for their health –- from hypertension and diabetes to heart disease and even cancer.
And I know you’re all aware of the economic impact: the billions of dollars we spend every year treating obesity-related conditions -– costs that you pay in the form of rising health insurance premiums.
So it’s clear that we’re facing a problem that is really big. And it’s also clear that this problem has a whole range of different causes.
Our kids are spending less time outside and more time on the couch in front of the TV, video games, the Internet. At school, gym classes, recess, they’ve been eliminated or shortened. Portion sizes in this country have ballooned.
In some areas, families are having a tougher time getting regular access to fresh produce. And kids these days are consuming more calories and eating more fat and sugar than ever before.
And that’s why, earlier this year, we launched “Let’s Move!” This is a nationwide campaign with a simple but ambitious goal: We want to solve the problem of childhood obesity in a generation, so that kids born today can reach adulthood at a healthy weight.
And “Let’s Move!” is about attacking this problem from all different angles. It’s about giving parents the information and the resources they need to make healthy decisions for their families.
It’s about giving grocery stores -- helping them to locate in underserved areas, so that every community has access to fresh and nutritious food. It’s about getting healthier food into our schools. It’s about helping our kids become more active, not just in school but at home.
But here’s the thing. 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.
And the truth is that while restaurants are offering more options and families take advantage of them more often, they aren’t always the healthiest choices.
Research has shown that kids consume more saturated fat and less fiber and calcium when they eat out. And the meals they eat at restaurants have twice as many calories as the ones they eat at home.
Now, as parents we know that many of our kids aren’t as healthy and active as they should be. And we desperately want to do things differently. But when stores and restaurants don't offer healthy options, or when parents don't have the information to make the best choices for their families, that's easier said than done.
And as America’s restaurant owners, you’re responsible for one-third of the calories our kids get on a daily basis. The choices you make determine what’s listed on the menus, what’s advertised on billboards, and what’s served on our plates.
And your decisions about how a dish is prepared, what goes into it and where is it placed on the menu, that can have a real impact on the way people eat.
And that's why we need your help. And we need your help now, because when you see research showing that obese toddlers already display some warning signs for heart disease, it’s clear that we just don't have the time to waste.
And that's why I’ve been so pleased to hear about what some of you are doing already both in working with us and on your own.
Here at the NRA, you’ve developed the Food and Healthy Living Initiative to give restaurants a strong foundation for making healthy changes. You’ve launched a website, Healthydiningfinder.com, to help consumers identify healthy menu options in their area.
You're keeping your members up to date with the latest information and statistics about efforts to address childhood obesity. And you’re working with other groups in the industry to meet the goal of doubling the amount of produce used in the food industry over the next 10 years.
And across the country, individual restaurants and chains are also focusing on our children’s health -- not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it also makes sense for their bottom line.
Right now, many restaurants are making a point to offer fresh produce and healthy choices aimed at kids and adults. Others are serving more low-fat dishes, whole grain breads, fruit on the side. Some are even offering kid-size portions of the meals they serve on the main menu. And chefs across the country are partnering with local schools to help them make healthy choices.
But as positive as these examples are, the reality is it’s just not enough. Together we have to do more. We have to go further. And we need your help to lead this effort.
Now, what I do know is that in the restaurant industry creativity is your lifeblood. It’s what sets you apart from the competition, and it keeps customers coming back for more.
And today I am asking you to use that creativity to rethink the food you offer, especially dishes aimed at young people, and to help us make the healthier choice the easier choice.
First, it’s important to reduce the number of empty calories that our families are consuming, calories that have no nutritional benefit whatsoever. And believe me, I know this is easier said than done.
After all, we as humans, we are programmed to crave sugary, fatty, salty foods. And as people who work to meet those needs, I know it’s tempting to respond by creating products that are sweeter, richer and saltier than ever before.
But here’s the catch. See, feeding those cravings does just respond to people’s natural desires, it actually helps shape them. The more of these foods people eat, the more they're accustomed to that taste, and after a while, those unhealthy foods become a permanent part of their eating habits.
But here’s the good news: It can work the other way around just as easily. Just as we can shape our children’s preferences for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, with a little persistence and creativity we can also turn them on to higher quality, healthier foods.
It starts with offering healthier options designed specifically for kids. And today, no matter what kind of restaurant you visit -- whether it’s Italian, French, Mexican, American -- most kids’ menus look pretty much the same. And trust me, we’ve seen a lot of them.
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.
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. And I think -- and I know you all think -- that our kids deserve better than that.
That’s why I want to challenge every restaurant to offer healthy menu options and then provide them up front so that parents don’t have to hunt around and read the small print to find an appropriately sized portion that doesn’t contain levels -- high levels of fat, salt and sugar.
These choices have to be easy to make and they have to give parents the confidence to know that they can go into any restaurant in this country and choose a genuinely healthy meal for their kids.
Now, again, I know it’s easier said than done. It’s not easy to come up with choices that are both healthy and palatable for kids. And it may mean putting in some real effort and creativity to make this happen.
But what it doesn’t mean is providing just one token healthy option on the menu, or taking out one problematic ingredient and replacing it with another. And it is not about finding creative ways to market unhealthy food products as healthy.
Instead, it’s about producing products that actually are healthy; products that can help our children get into the habits that will last them a lifetime.
This philosophy also needs to apply to the rest of the food that you offer, because just as we eat out as a family, we also should be able to eat well as a family.
And as a mother of two soon-to-be teenagers, I know that many kids, especially tweens and teens, eat off the same menu that their parents do.
I'm not asking any of you to make drastic changes to every single one of your recipes or to totally change the way you do business. But 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.
That could mean substituting wheat pasta for white pasta in your regular recipes, or taking out an existing -- taking an existing dish and cutting the amount of butter or cream -- not enough to sacrifice flavor -- we all like flavor -- but just enough to make a meaningful difference in the amount of calories and fat.
It could mean serving 1 percent or skim milk. Or you could make healthy sides like apple slices or carrots the default choice in a menu and make fries something customers have to request -- which would hurt me deeply. (Laughter.) I'm a fry lover.
And no matter what you do, it’s also important, truly important, to keep portion sizes in check, because we all know that the size of a meal is just as important as the ingredients it’s made of.
But your role in helping address childhood obesity isn’t limited to what you put on your menus and how you label them for parents. It’s also about how you market those products to our kids.
Our kids don’t learn about the latest fast-food creations on their own. They hear about them on TV, advertisements, in the Internet, video games, and many other places. And as any parent knows, this marketing is highly effective.
As a mom, I know it is my responsibility, and no one else’s, to raise my kids. But we have to ask ourselves, what does it mean when so many parents are finding their best efforts undermined by an avalanche of advertisements aimed at our kids.
A study last year found that only a small percentage of advertising aimed at kids promoted healthy foods, while most promoted foods with a low nutritional value. And 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.
And if there’s anyone who can sell healthy food to our kids, it’s all of you, because you know what gets their attention. You know what makes a lasting impression. You certainly know what gets them to drive their poor parents crazy because they just have to have something.
So I'm here today to ask you to use that knowledge and that power to our kids’ advantage. I'm asking you to actively promote healthy foods and healthy habits to our kids.
Again, I know many of you have said that you would offer and promote healthy options in a heartbeat if they were as popular as the healthy -- unhealthy options, because that’s how business works, and I understand that.
But I’ve yet to meet a single parent who doesn’t understand the threat of childhood obesity. I’ve yet to meet a single parent who’s not eager to buy healthier products. They just need more information. They need easier access to those products.
And I’ve heard from more companies over the year that the market is starting to move in a healthier direction. Folks are beginning to ask for more fruits and vegetables and for smaller portions. So when it comes right down to it, this is also about protecting your bottom lines and meeting the demands of your customers -- customers who I know you want to keep coming back again and again.
That’s why we’re committed to helping increase that demand and making it easier for you to do what’s right. And we’ve started by requiring chain restaurants to provide calorie counts on their menus and menu boards. And I am grateful for the support we’ve received from the NRA to get this done. And I want to encourage restaurants that aren’t providing calorie counts to join us in this effort.
And because so many of the calories our kids consume come from school, we’re also working to get more nutritious food into our lunchrooms and our vending machines. And, again, the NRA has been playing an important role in these efforts as well.
As part of “Let’s Move,” we’re setting a goal of doubling the number of schools that participate in the Healthier US Schools Challenge by next year. And we’re working with schools and food suppliers to offer more fruits and vegetables and to cut down on that fat, sugar and salt.
And, finally, we’re working with mayors and other local officials to make our cities and towns healthier and to highlight restaurants that agree to serve smaller portions and promote more nutritious options.
So I hope that all of you will join with us in these efforts. Together, we can help make sure that every family that walks into a restaurant can make an easy, healthy choice.
We can make a commitment to promote vegetables and fruits and whole grains on every part of every menu. We can make portion sizes smaller and emphasize quality over quantity. And we can help create a culture -- imagine this -- where our kids ask for healthy options instead of resisting them.
See, after all, that’s one of the core ideals this industry was founded on. I recently learned that the term “restaurant” actually comes from the French word for “restore.” And when the idea of the restaurant business spread across the ocean, some of the first true restaurants in this country emphasized their ability to make people healthier and to cure what ailed them.
So today, you are all the heirs to that legacy. And you face a similar opportunity both as business owners -- but also as parents, not just to fulfill your obligations to shareholders, but to fulfill the obligation we all have to the next generation.
So I hope that each of you will do your part to give our kids the future that we all know they deserve. And I want to truly thank you for what you have done, because you have done so much, and for what you’re going to do.
I look forward to working with you all in the months and years ahead. Good luck to you all and God bless you and your families. Take care. Thank you. (Applause.) ####
Photos: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press (Michelle Obama speaking to restaurant owners); Charles Dharapak / Associated Press (napkin, chicken wings, pancakes); CBS News (Philly cheesesteak); Getty Images (eating kringle in Wisconsin); Associated Press (hot dog, waffles, fried chicken, shaved ice, pizza); Charles Dharapak / Associated Press (cheeseburgers with Joe Biden); Associated Press (sandwich, beer).