I'll admit to having sympathy for fast-food chains and other purveyors of what is, let's face it, food that is generally unhealthy. On the one hand, there is a host of voices—parents, doctors, public-health advocates, politicians, and others—clamoring for healthier choices for ourselves and our kids. After all, obesity and its related health problems are an increasingly worrisome problem in the U.S.
On the other hand, corporations like McDonald's are moneymaking ventures, responsible primarily to shareholders looking to maximize their profits, and the inescapable truth is: junk food sells, and healthy options often bomb.
And so, I applaud those companies taking steps to improve the quality and healthiness of the food they offer, especially to children, even when those steps are small, tentative, or even symbolic. The latest such move is McDonald's announcement that it will no longer list soda as a drink option for its Happy Meals, a decision Elisa Zied explored in depth in her blog The Scoop on Food. To be clear, soda is still available to all customers of any age. All this move does is introduce some separation between kids' Happy Meals and these sugary drinks, requiring parents give the choice even a moment's extra thought.
The response by some readers to Elisa's post and the McDonald's soda news fascinates and worries me, though. Here are just a few comments people posted to her blog and our Facebook page:
"The govt and McDonald's need to stay out of my children's diet. We don't get them often, but for gosh sake let the kids have a little fun with a toy and a friggin soda."
"For the love of all that is holy... STOP telling people what to eat, drink, how to raise their kids, what their weight should be. Just worry about you and stop being the freaking police of everything. We are to the point where life isn't ours anymore."
"Unbelievable! 99.9% of the time, my children drink milk or water. The also eat healthy meals that same percentage of the time. If I want to get my child a happy meal AND, let them have a soda once in a blue moon, that should be MY prerogative as their parent and, not the decision of McDonalds or some group of strangers. Why should I have to suffer because other parents make poor choices for their children and, don't know how to say, "NO" to their kids asking for pop all the time."
"hey i've got an idea! government and everyone in the USA.....how about you raise your kids the way you want, and not worry about what everyone else is doing!? I like to call it the..."mind your own damn business."
Plenty of other people voiced support for the McDonald's decision, but opinions in this vein dominated the comments. Posts like these remind me of some conservative commentators' reactions to Michelle Obama's anti-obesity efforts. Public figures such as Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh, among many others, have denounced the First Lady for trying to raise public awareness and work with major corporations to provide healthier options for more people. To them, like to so many people commenting on the McDonald's announcement, this is all the result of government intrusion into our daily lives, the government eliminating choice and dictating our behavior.
It's sad to me that our society is polarized and politicized to the point where efforts to improve the health of our children are denounced. Our history is filled with successful campaigns to improve public health, change personal habits for the better, and affect corporations' behavior. First Ladies have long had pet causes, just as activist groups have long worked to put pressure on companies to achieve social or economic goals. None of this is inappropriate in our society. Quite the contrary. The bully pulpit, whether from the White House or the media airwaves, is an important and powerful tool.
In this case, McDonald's is reacting to market, not governmental, pressures. To the extent any governmental agency is involved, it is to help parents make healthy decisions for their children, not to regulate those decisions. (As many have pointed out, nothing is stopping parents from ordering a large Coke with their kids' Happy Meals. McDonald's is just un-linking the two, making it just that much less routinized to bundle soda with kids' meals.)
We should be celebrating McDonald's for aiding in this effort. This is our democratic, capitalist system at work; accusations that this is some form of nanny-state socialism are far off base.
Image of soda cup courtesy of Shutterstock.