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."
Thursday's announcement follows a string of menu modifications throughout the restaurant industry that rolled out last summer, several months after Michelle Obama spoke before the National Restaurant Association and called on them to offer healthier choices.
In July, Olive Garden restaurants eliminated french fries and milkshakes from its kids' menus and replaced them with grapes and fruit smoothies. That same month, 20 other restaurant companies — including Burger King, McDonald's, Chili's, Friendly's and IHOP — followed suit, offering healthier kids' fare.
"I hope that the people who are watching this announcement, particularly restaurants and other companies across the country, will see this and step up in the coming months in the same way that Darden has," the first lady said, before adding that it will only make a difference if parents who say they want options put their money where their mouth is.
"I also hope that parents watching this will keep speaking up and keep demanding healthy options for their kids," she said. "And more than that, I hope that parents will take full advantage of these kind of new options. Because the truth is that these restaurants can only keep making these offerings and making these choices and making these business sacrifices if people actually buy them. Right?"
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.