The nation’s fast-food giants certainly weren’t going to allow a new breed of smaller “fast-casual” chains to eat their lunch without taking action. The industry’s fast-casual segment has steadily been winning over customers with products that typically are made with less fat and fewer processed ingredients than the legacy restaurants use. Over the next five years, most of the fast-food market’s revenue growth is expected to come from these kinds of outlets — companies such as Panera Bread, Shake Shack, Cosi, and, yes, Chipotle.
Instead of taking a cue from the modestly encouraging nutritional trend, fast-food’s founding fathers have decided to counter the upstart competitors’ higher quality by pitching quantity. They’re doubling down on the same high-calorie strategies that for decades have, at least in part, helped make Americans overweight and unhealthy. McDonald’s, Burger King, and others are running advertising campaigns that promote fat-rich meals at newly discounted prices. Wendy’s started the feeding frenzy in October with a “4 for $4” deal that packages chicken nuggets, a bacon cheeseburger, a drink, and fries. McDonald’s earlier this month introduced its “McPick 2,” Burger King followed by hyping a $4 promotion that features five items, and Pizza Hut’s $5 “Flavor Menu,” includes four 20-oz. sodas, and a Hershey’s Triple Chocolate Brownie — “9 squares of warm, oven-fresh goodness.”
Faced with this kind of marketing onslaught, do fresh fruits and vegetables stand a chance? Many time-stressed Americans can’t resist the temptation of relatively inexpensive prepared food they can grab at a drive-through window. And given the choice between spending $5 on food that fills the kids up, or buying a single organic tomato, it’s understandable why a budget-conscious consumer might opt for the former. That behavior won’t easily be changed. Making wholesome food more affordable and available has long posed a major challenge for health-policy makers.
The reasons a burger and fries cost less than lettuce are many and complicated. Food-industry critics often start by pointing to the billions of dollars in federal subsidies that go to corn farmers. Corn is used to feed cattle and chickens, and to produce high fructose syrup. It’s key to fast-food profits. “For the last 50 years we’ve worked on making corn as cheap as possible,” says renowned food writer Michael Pollan, who is currently a fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “Our agricultural policies are at war with our health policies and objectives.” Realigning government priorities to encourage farm products with greater nutritional value might help tip the scales, but fresh-food advocates acknowledge that overhauling the subsidy system is politically daunting. “A handful of corporations control our food system from farm to fork,” reads a statement on the website of Farm Aid, a nonprofit that backs the so-called Good Food Movement. Indeed. The food industry spends tens of millions of dollars annually on lobbying lawmakers to keep it that way.
Lower-income people — many of whom work in fast-food restaurants — are often reliant on processed food out of necessity. Better choices are either not easily accessible, or they’re too expensive. Improving the standing of those at the bottom of the economy would give them options. “It’s a myth that low-income people don’t want to eat healthy,” says Pollan. “McDonald’s allows many of them to eat meat who otherwise would not be able to afford to. For a lot of people, cheap food is keeping them whole.” He suggests it’s time to “change the calculus” on pricing. That could be accomplished by requiring fast-food companies to pay the true cost of producing their products, while adding financial incentives — perhaps through subsidies — for commercial sellers and buyers of nutritious food. That could help level out price differences between good and bad food, minimizing cost as the primary factor in consumers’ purchasing decisions.
More emphasis also should be placed on the savings that could be realized throughout the nation’s health care system by turning fast food into an occasional indulgence instead of a diet staple. One example: Obesity increases the chances of developing diabetes, a disease that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated cost about $245 billion to treat in 2012 alone.
The opposition to all of these measures is practiced and well-funded, as evidenced by the barrage of ads. For some corporations, Americans’ poor health is good business. The previously slumping McDonald’s on Monday exceeded analysts’ expectations by reporting strong sales for the last quarter, mainly because it began offering breakfast all day. That sent the company’s stock up at the start of trading. Wall Street, like most of the country, can’t resist a Sausage McMuffin.