Olive Garden joins Michelle Obama's campaign against obesity

Thursday, September 15, 2011 | 8:06 a.m. CDT; updated 11:18 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 15, 2011

WASHINGTON — Encouraged by Michelle Obama's campaign to reduce childhood obesity, the company that owns Olive Garden, Red Lobster and four other popular restaurant chains is pledging to cut the calories and sodium in its meals and overhaul its children's fare.

Darden Restaurants Inc. was unveiling the changes Thursday with the first lady on hand to lend support.

The company will pledge to reduce the calories and sodium in all its meals by 10 percent over five years and by 20 percent over 10 years. For children, French fries and sugar-sweetened beverages will become the exception and not the rule.

All children's meals will automatically come with a side of fruit or vegetables and eight ounces of 1 percent milk unless an adult requests a substitute Drew Madsen, president and chief operating officer of Orlando, Fla.-based Darden, said.

"We think it's the most comprehensive health and wellness commitment in the industry," he said.

Darden's restaurants serve more than 400 million meals annually at more than 1,900 locations nationwide. Its four other restaurant chains are LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52. The Capital Grille and Seasons 52 do not have children's menus.

Darden's promise is part of a trend by the restaurant industry to serve healthier food.

Since the beginning of the year, McDonald's, Burger King, Chili's, IHOP, Friendly's and more than a dozen other large and small chains have said they will begin replacing the French fries in children's meals with fruit and removing enticing pictures of less healthy items from their menus.

Diners have become more health conscious and are asking for improvements, such as for their meals to be cooked without butter or with less salt or to be prepared any way but fried. Then there's Mrs. Obama's campaign to bring down childhood obesity rates.

One in three U.S. children is overweight or obese, putting them at greater risk of developing diabetes, heart disease or other health conditions. Mrs. Obama has said she wants to help today's youngsters become adults at a healthy weight by eating better and getting more exercise.

In a speech a year ago to the National Restaurant Association, the first lady asked members to "actively promote healthy foods and healthy habits to our kids." Consumers, she said, spend half their food dollars on meals outside the home and eat one in three meals at a restaurant. She suggested serving low-fat milk and healthy sides like apple slices or carrots and making French fries available only upon request.

White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes said Darden's announcement amounts to a "full-throated endorsement" of the types of changes Mrs. Obama has asked the nation's restaurant owners and operators to make.

In a National Restaurant Association survey of chefs, two-thirds of those working in the kitchens of family dining, fine dining and fast-food restaurants said their customers were ordering healthier items and paying more attention to nutritional content than they did two years ago.

Similarly, chefs ranked healthy children's meals as the fourth-hottest restaurant trend, behind locally grown and sustainable foods.

The government will begin requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations, along with bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores and coffee chains, to include clear calorie counts on their menus.

Mrs. Obama's participation in Thursday's announcement, scheduled for an Olive Garden restaurant in the Washington suburb of Hyattsville, Md., will be her latest appearance with retailers and others in support of her anti-obesity efforts.

In January, she stood with Wal-Mart, the nation's largest grocer, as it pledged to reformulate thousands of products it sells to make them healthier and to push suppliers to do the same.

This summer, the first lady applauded as Wal-Mart, Walgreens drug stores and several regional grocers committed to help eliminate "food deserts" by opening or expanding in rural and urban areas without easy access to healthy foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables.

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Ray Shapiro September 15, 2011 | 12:40 p.m.

("...eliminate "food deserts")
My favorite food desert is chocolate cream pie at Waffle House.
Please Mrs. Obama, don't take away my chocolate cream pie.

(Report Comment)
Gerald Shelnutt September 15, 2011 | 5:34 p.m.

Anyone who backs the obamas in anything is a place I don't go.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle September 15, 2011 | 7:51 p.m.

Good grief, you people are quacks. How long has it been, how long will it be, before you're complaining about the cost of healthcare? What's so truly and horribly terrible about promoting healthier diets, besides the fact that - OMG! - Michelle Obama is doing it?

Please, don't just throw away a simple, positive message. Tear it up, run it through the shredder, urinate on it, and torch it in a bonfire. Do this because of an irrational hate of a single man. Do this because you've given this one man complete control of your mind. He, through his wife, tells you where not to eat. He, through his wife, makes you cower in fear in a dark corner of your basement, clutching a damp cardboard box containing a slowly melting chocolate cream pie.

I can only imagine the collective sigh of relief from the Olive Garden staff when they discover they'll have one less self-centered irrational jerk to deal with.

Don't tell me your life was perfect before Obama. Don't try to convince me your life will be all roses when he's gone, either. in fact, Obama *will* be gone pretty soon; I'm not so sure about the hate and anger that's eating you.

In all likelyhood, the propaganda machine will easily re-orient you to some new symbol to blame and despise for your own miserable lives. You'll buy the next false dichotomy, hook line an sinker.

There are plenty of legitimate complaints about Obama. This is not one of them. Get real, and stop giving this one man so much purchase in your mind.

(Report Comment)
frank christian September 15, 2011 | 9:07 p.m.

Derrick - "There are plenty of legitimate complaints about Obama. This is not one of them. Get real, and stop giving this one man so much purchase in your mind." This piece is about his wife. Your reaction is to One that doesn't care for either one of them.

"What's so truly and horribly terrible about promoting healthier diets, besides the fact that - OMG! - Michelle Obama is doing it?" You are "right on" here. Probably the only First Lady more controversial in a program mandating what a restaurant can serve it's customers, would be Laura Bush.

(Report Comment)
Derrick Fogle September 17, 2011 | 12:50 a.m.

Mandate? You mean the product labeling one?
That has nothing to do with this voluntary (albeit insignificant) action by Darden.

And, what did Laura Bush do to draw your ire? Oh yeah... She actually championed the idea of government spending on education. That's just awful.

(Report Comment)
frank christian September 19, 2011 | 8:48 a.m.

OK,"The government will begin requiring restaurants with 20 or more locations, along with bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores and coffee chains, to include clear calorie counts on their menus." is not a mandate on what can be "served", and until recently "the government" had not dictated where a industrial factory must *not* be built.

I'm not man at Laura. I picked her as being the more controversial, because her name is Bush.

"Get real, and stop giving this one man so much purchase in your mind." "Get real", in my opinion, belongs to you. Obama may be gone but the damaging "torches" he has laid down will be picked up by his progressive following and continue to threaten and destroy.

(Report Comment)
fhhdg hfgybdh September 19, 2011 | 10:40 a.m.
This comment has been removed.
Ray Shapiro September 19, 2011 | 2:40 p.m.

Can someone give me Mrs. Obama's/this administration's definition of "food desert?"
I visited Forest Park in St. Louis this weekend for a balloon glow event, drove down Kingshighway from the Southside down past Barnes-Jewish Hospital then encountered an area having liquor stores with bars on their windows, a popeye's chicken franchise, an aldi's, an independent large supermarket and many other not so fancy businesses, but businesses non the less.
Would that area be considered by the Obama's to be a food desert? Is a food desert areas where parents don't cook meals for their families and children must rely on public schools and "buddy packs" for their meals?
Is Midway, MO a food desert because they have no SuperWalmart, even though the parents in that area seem to feed their children in a healthy manner?
Wouldn't it be more "real" if individual homes be considered dysfunctional deserts and not neighborhoods?

(Report Comment)
frank christian September 19, 2011 | 3:20 p.m.

louis schneebaum - "I just wanted to chime in and let you know that you're a fool"

I suppose the proper response would be "Takes one to know one!". However when some nit-wit throws out an accusation such as yours, without any rhyme or apparent reason, probably No response would be best.

If you dislike my post regarding the Obamas, I would guess that you are a liberal, nit-wit!

(Report Comment)

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