That’s the message I’m getting from the media hype surrounding the partnership announced last week between Michelle Obama and Subway restaurants. Their press release, “Subway Restaurants Answers First Lady Michelle Obama’s Call To Market Healthier Choices to Kids,” details their planned initiative where highlights include:
- New “Fresh Fit For Kids” meals, which contain 600 or fewer calories and less than 935 milligrams of sodium.
- Low-fat, non-fat milk or water as the new meals’ default beverages.
- The option of fresh apples as a side dish to the meals.
And frankly, that’s all well and good. Certainly there’s room for improvement on the nutritional criteria, but no doubt it’s better than much of what’s out there, and it’s great to see healthier beverage options as the default rather than something a parent needs to ask for.
But there was more to announce. The press release also reported that over the course of the next three years, the chain will launch “its largest kid-targeted marketing effort to date,” which some have gathered to also mean the involvement of the first lady herself in the campaign. Whether or not Mrs. Obama’s smiling face will grace Subway restaurant advertising, there’s clearly no doubt that Subway will have the backing and reach of the Partnership for a Healthier America, a Let’s Move partner. Suzanne Greco, vice president of Subway’s R&D and Operations, reports: “With this partnership with PHA, we will now reach millions of kids as part of a healthier eating education campaign.”
So the hope, clearly, is that this partnership and consequent marketing campaign will be a net positive for kids’ health – and that kids will start eating more in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Forgive me if I’m not so excited.
Firstly, and not to be a killjoy, but I’m not aware of there ever having been a public health campaign that has led to a sustained increase in children’s fruit and vegetable intake. Of course, that doesn’t mean that this won’t be the one, but perhaps it fairly pours a little cold water on the excitement.
Secondly, the existence of healthier menu items certainly doesn’t mean that they’ll be ordered – with McDonald’s salads, which make up only 2 percent of the chain’s sales, as an obvious example.
Thirdly, there’s no doubt this campaign will only heighten the health-halo of Subway restaurants – a phenomenon that has been shown to lead diners to consume more calories from supposedly healthy Subway than from McDonald’s. Perhaps in part this is due to an even stranger phenomenon called “vicarious goal fulfillment,” where the mere presence of a healthier option on a menu paradoxically leads to less healthful options being ordered more frequently.
Lastly, there’s little doubt that Subway’s “largest kid-targeted marketing effort to date,” especially when combined with Let’s Move’s blessing, will lead to increased kids’ visits to Subway, and consequently decreased kid visits to kitchens.
Truly, I’m genuinely glad that restaurants see the possibility of profits in healthier options – that’s honestly heartening – but I think there’s sufficient evidence to worry that the campaign may have undesirable unintended consequences. That said, let’s hope I’m wrong and that somehow a massive three-year marketing campaign blessed and promoted by the first lady and Let’s Move will not serve to increase the belief that health can be found in restaurants, and that parents really don’t need to worry much about cooking, and instead will serve its supposed purpose of increasing kids’ fruit and vegetable consumption.
Oh, and funny factoid: Do you know what has actually been shown to increase a child’s fruit and vegetable intake? Home-cooked meals. And personally, I wish that’s what Mrs. Obama and the Partnership for a Healthier America were championing, promoting and enabling, rather than this – however well-intentioned – health-washing of our current toxic culture of convenience.
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