What's a Girl to Eat?

McDonald is trying to atone. In their new full-page ad-statement, McDonalds is committing to reducing caloric content, salt content, getting rid of trans fats in the fries – and making Happy Meals healthier. Why – because, they claim, “our customers are always changing”. Do they mean that over the past 57 years of eating McDonalds Happy Meals and BigMacs we have become fatter and by association, unhealthier? Is this their way of stating that they have been complicit in our health problems and so now are committed to healthier fast food?

There are at least two ways of reading this. The first is that McDonalds is paying attention to the growing health problem of childhood, and adult, obesity. To which we would ask – do you really think that reducing calories by an average of 20% (by really reducing the size of the serving of fries), reducing sodium content by 15% and adding a few apple slices to the Happy Meals is going to change things? This feels like a perfunctory nod to the voices of concern and the alarming statistics that tell us that approximately 15% of youth are obese. If McDonalds is truly interested in us – and it should be given that with an increasingly unhealthy audience they have consumers who will be forced to eat less of their product, and have an unhealthier workforce – then it would wise for them to take this more seriously.

We might suggest that they use their retail space to host sport activities; perhaps offer competitive events at stores; maybe provide coaching sessions for community teams; maybe even take one hour of every day and host 60 minutes of exercise for kids. Or McDonalds could offer cooking classes for families, making it fun and easy to prepare healthy meals. Or instead of providing toys with meals, they could launch a competition where the winning prize is a year’s worth of home-cooked meals.

And yet, McDonalds doesn’t really have to care. The news in both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times of Monday August 8th, report that McDonalds global same-store sales rose 5.1% in July, further demonstrating that McDonalds continues to do extremely well – indeed better than its competitors – through a very challenging recession.

The second way to read this is that McDonalds actually does truly understand us. They get that radical, wholesale changes in menus will be unsuccessful. They understand our addiction because they created it. To undo this pleasure-based need, McDonalds will wean us slowly and gently and move us toward healthier eating. And McDonalds will be successful in this because it has the market heft and girth to drive social change.

The question is why do they have this market power? Yes, it is the addictive-design of the food. But it is also that we are time-starved and anxious. Ask any harried parent who is trying to juggle professional demands, parenting responsibilities and their own personal desires and the one thing they say they lack is time. So between quitting work at 5pm (ha-ha), getting the kids to their after-school programs, continuing to respond to work emails, doing household errands – the thing that drops off the to do list is preparing home-cooked, healthy meals. Taste and time drive the business of fast food.

The recent IPO of Dunkin’ Brand Group is further evidence of how these dual forces are a winning market combination; the shares were offered at $19 and within the first day rose over 45% to close at just over $27. That interesting entity we call “the market” understands the enduring fundamentals of the fast food business. We crave the taste, we require the timesaving.

We are both the drivers and victims. As consumers we have the power to resist – and should be when we are responsible for the lives of children who are incapable of making these choices. As victims of the time-pressured world we live in, we feel helpless to make these choices.

So perhaps we need collectively to make three demands. Fast food restaurants take a page from New York and tell us honestly the caloric content of every item you offer. Employers and governments – we need more time. And to ourselves, we need to live healthier lives. While we have tendency to blame others, especially when they are large corporations, the problem of unhealthy food and not enough time or inclination to work it off, is a collective problem.

If we want to marginalize the power of high-calorie, desired-inducing foods and elevate the pleasure of healthy food and lifestyle, we need to collectively assert our right to be healthier. We need to rewrite the social contract that demands different behaviours from all layers of the social nexus. And in this McDonalds, while their changes may be minor and even disingenuous, is taking a step – we need to match that step by demanding even more.