A surge in work is typical before the NRA Show, and even a freelance restaurant writer wasn’t exempted this year, a sign itself that business conditions are improving. A barrage of assignments frustrated RestaurantRealityCheck from reporting several trends that merit winces or ooohs from the industry. Here, in several installments, are a few newsreel-worthy subjects that shouldn’t slip past unnoticed.
The obesity witch hunt is waning. Chain restaurants have been vilified for years as the agents of excess who made kids fat. If those glitzy temples didn’t sell families so many shakes and fries, the argument holds, the tykes wouldn’t be consuming more calories than they burn. We wouldn’t have a childhood obesity problem in the United States.
Somewhere along the way, reason snuck into the discussion. Talk of who’s to blame has given way to a new topic of discourse, the encouraging concept of “healthy communities.”
A more holistic approach, it holds that the problem has to be rectified by overhauling communities—their infrastructures and their sensibilities—instead of hanging one component as the culprit.
In this fresher way of thinking, communities have to consider such factors as how they inadvertently discourage routine exercise. Do they have sidewalks? Safe playgrounds? Bike paths? Can kids walk to school, or have the layout and customs all but guarantee that youngsters get a ride?
Similarly, are healthful options even present? Are there markets where the right sort of foods can be purchased, or has the community lapsed into a nutritional desert, where most of the choices come in single-serving cellophane bags?
Fast-food places are still part of the scrutiny, as any food emporium should be in a broad-stroke approach. After all, the very notion is that every component of a community has to do its part.
So proponents look at factors like the ratio of processed-food outlets to markets featuring fresh, ideally locally grown fare.
Similarly, they haven’t abandoned the controversial notion that restaurants should filter their communications to children since parents often don’t.
Indeed, under pressure from no less a force than the White House, where First Lady Michelle Obama is championing the healthy communities approach, the Federal Trade Commission plans to start taking fast-food marketers to task. The watchdog agency’s chairman has indicated that he may subpoena chains to see if they upheld promises made in 2005 to change what and how they market to kids. He’s suggested that regulation may be the fallback if volunteer curbs weren’t implemented.
Similarly, a report issued earlier this week by the White House has stoked calls for a heavier sales tax on foods that pose a health risk.
After reviewing all the obesity-focused legislation passed by states last year, the National Conference of State Legislatures concluded that children’s health advocates are increasingly framing their efforts as the pursuit of healthy communities. It’s clearly become the prevailing way of looking at the issue, a refreshing change from the blame game.
Restaurants need to embrace and promote that more reasonable approach, even if it means shouldering some responsibility and making some significant changes.