Updated McDonald's Happy Meal: PR Stunt or Health Win?

BlogHer Original Post

Yesterday's announcement that McDonald's will roll out a healthier version of its Happy Meal in September (as well as slowly introducing additional nutrition improvements across the chain's menu) came as a pleasant surprise to many nutrition and food advocates, especially those who have been working to address fast food nutrition through legislative policy change.

On She Knows: Parenting, Laura Willard interviewed mothers about their opinion on the change. The opinions are interesting, though it doesn't sound like the new meals are going to have that much of an effect on the purchasing habits of her sample set. Willard also speculates on the motivation behind the change:

To me, the new McDonald's Happy Meal is nothing more than an attempt to avoid potential future regulation. Remember when the board of supervisors in San Francisco voted for a Happy Meal ban last November? The city proposed that meals containing over 600 calories, with over 35% of the content coming from fat and devoid of fruits and vegetables, should not be allowed to include a toy. Now all of the Happy Meals options will in fact log in at less than 600 calories, possibly preventing McDonald's from being affected by some future regulation.

In the past year, Santa Clara County and San Francisco in California have passed legislation (both of which have yet to go into effect) requiring fast food restaurants to meet minimal nutritional standards to be allowed to give away a toy with a children's meal. Other communities around the country are looking at implementing similar versions of the measure. Though they claimed the move had nothing to do with such regulatory measures, the fast food chain Jack in the Box announced last month that it would remove toys from its children's meals entirely.

McDonald's announcement wasn't a total surprise to Grace Hwang Lynch, who stumbled across McDonald's test run of the new meals in Silicon Valley, Calif. last year. Though a corporate spokesperson told Lynch the test was "in response to changing customer needs, not in response to legislation," at the time, Lynch saw the move as a direct response to media attention on the nutritional content of the popular children's meal.

It just goes to show that even if the letter of the law doesn't apply to restaurants, the widespread publicity stemming from these high profile legislative moves can nudge a mega-corporation like McDonald's to consider changes.

Fooducate called the shift "a brilliant PR move" for the fast food giant. But beyond the public relations angle, the writer sees the improved nutritional standards as a sign that parents and advocates have been effective agents for change:

While small, the change is significant on one way – it has shown that public pressure works people. The more we push, the more the food industry will listen. The more our elected officials will listen. Are you pushing hard enough for changes to your kids’ foods, and essentially, their future?

Bettina Elias Siegel of The Lunch Tray also questions whether these changes are more about the public image of McDonald's and less about meaningful change in the American diet, but sees this as encouragement that parents and advocates need to keep making noise on this issue:

It would be counter-productive, I think, to take issue with those positive changes just because we (quite rightly) question the purity of the motives behind them.   Moreover, let’s not overlook the fact that consumer and legislative pressure pushed a behemoth like McDonald’s in the right direction.  Not far enough, of course, but that in itself is noteworthy.  The key, then, is to keep right on pushing.

Of course, not everyone agrees with McDonald's approach...or the work of nutrition and health advocates. Colleen O'Quinn of 101.5 The View in Missoula, Montana called the move "crazy."

I have seen the obesity problem in America, but I don’t think it’s fair to blame fast food.  There have always been unhealthy choices.  What’s next, getting rid of all unhealthy food so that Americans don’t gain weight?

And Christina of Cutest Kid Ever draws a hard line on the need for parents and consumers to take responsibility for the food they eat:

So stop knocking McDonald’s for not doing “enough” for our children’s health. Every restaurant offers unhealthy food alongside their healthy options. Grocery stores sell both healthy and unhealthy foods. It’s up to every consumer, every parent, to decide what’s best for themselves and their families. It’s all about choices and moderation. And the last time I checked, there’s no other restaurant in my area that will allow my son to run around and burn off many of the calories he’s eating in a dedicated play area.

Here are some more reports and opinions on the new Happy Meal design from around the blogosphere:

What is your take on the nutrition changes announced yesterday by McDonald's? Will it change how often you eat there or take your family there to eat? Do you think this is going to help reduce childhood obesity in the U.S.? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Genie blogs about gardening and food at The Inadvertent Gardener, and tells very short tales at 100 Proof Stories. She is also the Food Section Editor for BlogHer.

Image Credit: McDonald's

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