In the year and a half since she announced her campaign to curb childhood obesity, Mrs.
Obama has stood alongside Wal-Mart, Olive Garden and many other food
companies as they have announced improvements to their recipes –
fewer calories, less sodium, better children’s menus.
The changes are small steps, in most cases. Fried foods and french fries will still
be on the menu, though enticing pictures of those foods may be gone.
High-sodium soups, which many consumers prefer, will still be on the
grocery aisle. But the amount of sodium in each can will gradually
decrease in some cases, and the taste of their low-sodium variety
will be improved.
On Thursday, the first lady joined Darden Restaurants Inc. executives at one of their
Olive Garden restaurants in Hyattsville, Maryland, near Washington,
to announce that the company’s chains are pledging to cut calories
and sodium in their meals by 20 percent over a decade. Fruit or
vegetable side dishes and low-fat milk will become standard with
kids’ meals unless a substitution is requested.
industry. The company owns 1,900 restaurants in 49 states, including
Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille,
Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52.“I believe the changes that Darden will make could impact the health and well-being
of an entire generation of young people,” the first lady said.McDonald’s, Burger King and more than a dozen other restaurants have also said this
summer that they will revamp children’s menus. Changing recipes and
menu items is good business for the industry because consumers want
wider choices – chefs and food manufacturers say consumers are
demanding more healthy food than ever before.Nutrition advocates and food industry representatives say that the first lady embraced
the issue just as consumers began to demand healthier foods and
advocates were making headway in getting industry to make foods
healthier. They say she has been a key catalyst in getting lawmakers
and companies to jump on board.“There’s been more progress on nutrition in the last several years than in the
whole previous decade,” says Margo Wootan, a leading nutrition
advocate and lobbyist with the Center for Science in the Public
Interest who has been working on the issue for almost 20 years.
“There is a lot of momentum in addressing obesity right now and
the first lady adds significant momentum to that movement.”Wootan says Mrs. Obama and her staff have done more than just public appearances,
working behind the scenes with industry and Congress to affect
change.“She does more than use the bully pulpit,” says Wootan.The landscape has certainly changed for the food industry since President Barack Obama
took office and the first lady launched her campaign. In that time,
Congress has passed laws to improve school lunches, improve food
safety and require calorie labeling in restaurants, all with
industry support. The administration has proposed new food marketing
rules for children and the food industry has come at least part of
the way with their own proposal to limit marketing to kids. Major
companies have launched a joint effort to cut calories and put more
nutrition information on food labels.The first lady’s effort has had “a dramatic impact on manufacturers, restaurants
and retailers,” says Scott Faber, a lobbyist for the Grocery
Manufacturers Association, which represents all of the major food
companies. “Until the first lady launched her initiative there was no one American who was inspiring this
generation of kids and parents to do more to have a healthy
lifestyle.”Mrs. Obama’s participation with Darden Restaurants was her latest appearance with
retailers and other private-sector players in support of her
anti-obesity campaign. In January, she stood with Wal-Mart, the
nation’s largest grocer, as it pledged to reformulate thousands of
products it sells to make them healthier and to push suppliers to do
the same.This summer, the first lady applauded as Wal-Mart, Walgreens drug stores and several
regional grocers committed to help eliminate “food deserts”
by opening or expanding in rural and urban areas without easy access
to healthy foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables.One in three U.S. children is overweight or obese, putting them at greater risk of
developing diabetes, heart disease or other health conditions. Mrs.
Obama has said her goal is to help today’s youngsters become adults
at a healthy weight by eating better and getting more exercise.In a speech to the National Restaurant Association one year ago this month, the first
lady asked members to “actively promote healthy foods and
healthy habits to our kids.”Dawn Sweeney, CEO of the association, said that was an “acceleration point”
for many restaurants that were already starting to change their
menus.“Certainly the focus she has put on food and healthy living has been a great boost
to create even broader consumer interest,” Sweeney said.