Darden Restaurants Inc., owner and operator of more than 1,900 restaurants including the Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains, on Thursday announced an alliance with the Partnership for a Healthier America and Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign to end childhood obesity. The company has pledged to curb the amount of calories and salt in meals and revamp its children's menus.
According to Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers, the Orlando, Fla.-based company will cut calories and sodium at its six different restaurant chains by 10 percent in the next five years and 20 percent in the next 10 years. The children's meals will have fruits and vegetables as the default side dish, likely instead of fries, and one percent milk will be the default drink.
Darden CEO Clarence Otis will appear with The First Lady on Thursday at an Olive Garden in Hyattsville, Md., to formally announce these initiatives.
Melody Barnes, domestic policy adviser for the White House, says Darden's is a full-throated endorsement of the kinds of changes Michelle Obama wants the nation's restaurant owners to make. Darden's restaurants, including LongHorn Steakhouse, Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze, and Seasons 52, serve more than 400 million meals nationwide annually.
Michelle Obama has previously said she wants to help today's youngsters become adults at a healthy weight by eating better and getting more exercise, and her message seems to be catching on. According to a National Restaurant Association survey of chefs, healthy children's meals were ranked as the fourth-hottest restaurant trend, after locally grown and sustainable foods. Furthermore, two-thirds of chefs working in family dining, fine dining, and fast-food restaurants say their customers now order healthier items and pay more attention to nutritional content than they did two years ago.
Some of the country's biggest food chains are paying attention to Michelle Obama and making baby steps in the healthy direction. Fast food chains, including McDonald's, Burger King, IHOP, and Chili's have begun replacing French fries in children's meals with fruit and removing pictures of less-healthy food items from their menus.
Obesity is an epidemic in the U.S., where one in every three child is classified as overweight or obese. To help combat this problem, the White House will soon require all restaurants, grocery stores, bakeries, coffee chains, and convenience stores with 20 or more locations to include accurate and clear calorie counts on their menus.
So far this year, Michelle Obama has prompted Wal-Mart, Walgreens and other regional grocers to reformulate their products to be healthier, and pushed their suppliers to do the same.