Since launching her Let’s Move! campaign targeting childhood obesity a year and a half ago, first lady Michelle Obama has made headway on school nutrition and access to fresh food. Among other undertakings, she’s successfully advocated for the authorization of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which sets tighter nutrition standards for foods regularly sold in schools; fostered the donation of 6,000 salad bars to mostly low-income public schools by United Fresh Produce Association; and partnered with Wal-Mart, which pledged to lower the cost of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods for its 140 million weekly customers.
On Thursday, Darden Restaurants, Inc. — parent company to Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Bahama Breeze, LongHorn Steakhouse, the Capital Grille and Seasons 52 chains — also committed to doing better nutritionwise. Across its entire restaurant lineup, which operates 1,900 facilities in 49 states, Darden pledged to:
* Reduce the calories and sodium in its entire menu by 10 percent over five years, and by 20 percent over a 10-year period.
* Make a fruit or vegetable the default side dish for all children’s meals. (French fries will be available in these meals by request only.)
* Make 1 percent milk the default beverage, with free refills, on all children’s meals. (Soda and other beverages by request only.)
* Improve at least one item on each restaurant’s kids’ menu to provide no more than 600 calories, 30 percent of calories from fat, 10 percent of calories from saturated fat and 600 milligrams of sodium.
“This is a breakthrough moment in the restaurant industry,” Michelle Obama said at a Hyattsville, Md., Olive Garden restaurant on Thursday, where she announced the changes. “Darden is working to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”
The key word here is “choice,” for those concerned about their chain-restaurant favorites getting the boot, or for inevitable critics who will claim that the first lady is mandating what restaurants can serve.
“We don’t plan on giving up the items that we know people love,” Bob McAdam, senior vice president for government and community affairs for Darden Restaurants, said on a White House conference call. “There are favorites on every one of our menus, and we expect to continue to offer them. Indulging in those items is a good thing to do from time to time. This initiative is about offering more items that people will also find delightful and delicious, and allowing them to try new things with greater choice and variety.”