September 15th, 2011
04:47 PM ET
First Lady Michelle Obama scored a big win Thursday in her campaign to eliminate childhood obesity within a generation. Mrs. Obama announced that the biggest full service restaurant company in the world, Darden Restaurants which owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster and LongHorn Steakhouse among others, has agreed to cut sodium and calories on its menus across the board as well as offering healthier menu choices targeted to kids.
"This is a breakthrough moment in the restaurant industry," Mrs. Obama told reporters and guests invited by Darden and the White House to an Olive Garden Restaurant in suburban Hyattsville, Maryland. The first lady, who called on restaurants to rethink their menus when she spoke at the National Restaurant Association more than a year ago, praised Darden for what she called its vision and commitment.
"Darden is doing what no restaurant company has done before. They're not just making their kids’ menus healthier so that parents have more choices and more control; they're making changes across their full menu at every single one of their restaurants throughout the country," she said.
Darden announced it wants to cut its corporation's calorie "footprint" with a goal of reducing calories of items on its menus by 10% over the next five years and 20% over the next ten years. The company also plans to cut the sodium or salt in its menu items by the same measure– 10% less salt in the next five years and 20% less salt in the next ten years.
The company, which owns 1900 restaurants across the United States serving 400 million meals each year, says they're doing this to help their community but that the bottom line still looms large.
"It does none of us any good to have food that may be nutritionally good but doesn't taste good... [o]ur real purpose is getting the food we know is good for people also be food that they love," said Robert S. McAdam, Darden's senior vice president for government and community affairs on a conference call with reporters Thursday.
McAdam said that is precisely why the corporation plans to implement this new initiative in a "transition-over-approach".
"[D]eveloping food that people love, the taste profiles that they love, the cravability that they love– it takes a long time...we need a long time to be sure we get it right."
Executives from the Orlando,FL, based company in town for Thursday's announcement insisted higher calorie, and perhaps less healthy consumer favorites, would remain on their menus.
"It's not about necessarily sacrificing the preferences we have today but adding new items that we can increase preference for in the future," McAdams said.
For its kids menus, the restaurant giant plans to implement healthy changes sooner. By next summer they will offer a fruit or vegetable as the standard side dish for a kid's meal. Forget the standard sugary soft drink option. One percent milk with free refills will be provided automatically if a child doesn't specifically request another type of drink.
And the photos on the menu that make your mouth water for those french fries or that chocolate sundae will be equally enticing but also feature healthy choices.
The Partnership for a Healthier America, a non-partisan organization that works alongside the first lady's efforts, called Darden's initiative a "meaningful commitment" that would be monitored for its progress. PHA chairman Dr. James Gavin announced Dardin has signed a "binding, legal agreement" to allow his organization to evaluate and monitor Darden's progress on its goals.
As for calls that the food police are running rampant, the first lady went on the offense.
"It’s not about telling people what to do," said Mrs. Obama, who has been criticized by some for her "Let's Move" campaign to instill healthy eating habits in children.
"It’s about parents taking responsibility for what their kids eat, and it’s about companies like Darden helping parents meet that responsibility by providing healthy options," she insisted.
"I know the feeling because I've been there. I mean, it wasn't that long that we lived in a regular house. We didn't always live in the White House," she told the two dozen invited guests at the suburban restaurant.
"And it wasn't that long ago that Barack and I were struggling just like most families to try to keep it all together. Our girls always had busy schedules, like many of you. They did then; they do now. And there were plenty of times that things like cleaning and grocery shopping and cooking fell by the wayside. And like many parents, we aspired to prepare healthy, home-cooked meals for our families because we knew that was the best way to ensure that our girls ate right was to cook it ourselves. But sometimes we just didn't have the time and, quite frankly, we didn't have the energy," said Mrs. Obama.
But she warned that parents who control the purse strings need to get on board as well or the healthy choices won't continue to be offered. "We literally have to put our money where our mouths are, so that they keep doing it. We have to give them the incentive to do the right thing by stepping up and making those choices."