A healthy fight

Paul King presents an argument for healthy guidance rather than coercion.

Health and wellness is an issue that has been on a lot of people’s minds for quite some time. At FoodService Director, we spent the last several months building an entire conference around the topic. Healthy Flavors, Healthy Profits—the theme of our 2013 MenuDirections conference—gave attendees a wealth of information and more than a little food for thought about how and why they should be creating healthier menus for their customers.

The issue also has been in the forefront of the news this past month, particularly in New York City, where we are based. Last month, New York State Supreme Court Judge Milton Tingling overturned the Big Apple’s ban on the sale of sugared beverages in amounts greater than 16 ounces. Tingling called the city’s ban “arbitrary and capricious,” noting, for example, that under the law New Yorkers would not have been able to buy a 20-ounce soda at McDonald’s but could still purchase a 32-ounce “Big Gulp” soda at their local 7-Eleven convenience store.

There were a number of other flaws in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest attempt to legislate against obesity, but rather than redraft his plan the mayor has vowed to fight the court decision. He even is arguing that a ban of this type should be adopted by New York State—which has control over grocery stores and convenience stores—and by other states as well.

I thought about this the other day, when I walked into a Dunkin’ Donuts in my neighborhood and saw, in the refrigerated beverage case, 16-ounce bottles of soda. The speed with which beverage companies have created new packaging spoke volumes to me about their take on the mayor’s proposal. And it also got me thinking about where the responsibility for shaping a healthier America truly lies.

Seriously, no one in the U.S. really wants a nanny state where nutrition is controlled by government fiat—and frankly, the government doesn’t do a great job when it tries to legislate such an issue. Look at all the pushback the U.S. Department of Agriculture has received from school foodservice directors over its implementation of the latest school meal regulations. The best intentions of the USDA have been nearly negated by poor execution—not to mention the fact that the government has made school foodservice the scapegoat for a problem that is far more complex than banning fatty foods and sugary drinks from school cafeterias.

But in order to prevent the government from becoming the food police, foodservice operators, restaurateurs, food and beverage manufacturers and, most important, consumers must all take responsibility for improving the dietary climate in this country.

Non-commercial operators have made great strides, even without government intervention, in getting their customers to rethink issues like portion size, fat and sugar and the power of produce. A number of restaurant chains have also taken up the call, not only by posting nutritional information on their menus—albeit with some “assistance” from the government—but also by offering customers more menu choices that fit a healthier lifestyle.

And food and beverage manufacturers have proven that, when they are pushed to it, they can create healthier versions of a large number of items. Those 16-ounce bottles I saw at Dunkin’ Donuts were evidence of that.

The groundwork already has been set, even if people like Michael Bloomberg don’t think it’s happening fast enough. Consumer attitudes toward food and drink are changing. If the foodservice industry can work toward continuing to guide, rather than coerce, Americans along the path to a healthier lifestyle, we’ll get there more quickly and with less animosity than if government continues pushing prohibition. 

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