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National Restaurant Association - NRA’s Sweeney talks nutrition at PHA conference

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NRA’s Sweeney talks nutrition at PHA conference

Providing more healthful options for consumers is becoming more commonplace among restaurateurs and suppliers, Dawn Sweeney, the National Restaurant Association’s chief executive, said at the Partnership for a Healthier America conference earlier this month in Washington, D.C.

Sweeney made her remarks at Sprouts for Sprouts, a PHA session focusing on child nutrition and the strides the industry is making in providing more healthful meals for kids. Also on the March 7 panel was Cheryl Dolven, director of health and wellness for Darden Restaurants, and Dr. Mary Story, senior associate dean at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. Tracy Fox, president of Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants LLC, served as the moderator.
According to Sweeney, implementation of the NRA’s Kids LiveWell initiative has been “very gratifying because companies involved really understand the challenges in today’s environment.”

She noted that the voluntary program, which helps parents locate and select healthful meals for their children at restaurants, launched in July 2011 with 19 companies participating, but now has approximately 135 representing 40,000 restaurants.
Kids LiveWell-approved meals are 600 calories or less, feature two or more servings of fruits or vegetables, and include whole grains, lean protein and low fat dairy. Fats, sugar and sodium are limited.

“The list of participants is growing significantly,” she said. “In most every case now, there are multiple options that meet the Kids LiveWell nutritional criteria. The goal, really, is for kids, as they start to grow, to be exposed to options that are more healthful and meet all of the [U.S. Department of Agriculture’s] guidelines.

She added that restaurants in every segment of the industry now participate in the program, from family dining to casual to quick service, fast casual and fine dining. Additionally, supplier partners are joining the effort, too.

“We have partnered with companies like Kellogg’s and Kraft, who have agreed to create products that meet the criteria of the program,” she said. “This will allow the restaurant operator to be even more innovative and have additional options to offer.”
Sweeney applauded the industry for the healthful efforts it is making.

“The industry is taking a real strong step forward,” she said. “When you think about childhood obesity in this nation, I think there are many things that restaurants are doing proactively, from portion sizes to healthier sides. Our goal is to have any person in the United States walk into any single restaurant and find healthful options if that’s the path they want to take. Ultimately it’s about individual responsibility, but the role of the industry is to offer options.”

Darden’s Dolven said her company, as part of its agreement with Partnership for America, has made numerous changes to the children’s menus at its many brands: Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Bahama Breeze, LongHorn Steakhouse, Season’s 52, Capital Grille and Yard House.

“The first thing we did is establish a guiding principal that every meal would be 600 calories or less,” she said. “Even more exciting is that a fruit or vegetable has become the default side and 1 percent milk with refills is also available as the default. Carbonated soda is no longer depicted or offered on the menus and french fries were removed from the Olive Garden’s menus. And, of course, we will not advertise to kids under 12; that was a big part of our commitment.”

Dolven said the items removed from the menus are still available upon request.

Restaurant brands engage as more consumers recognize the work restaurateurs are doing, Sweeney said. “To my mind, recognition is probably the most important incentive,” she said. “We’re not in favor of regulation because we don’t think that’s going to actually drive the innovation that the industry is capable of.”

Sweeney added that responding to consumers and their more sophisticated needs is making a real difference.

“We’ve done a lot of research over the years and most recently found that more than 70 percent of consumers are trying to eat more healthfully than they did even two or three years ago,” she said. “This clearly is a shift – an important trend. One of the things the restaurant community is best known for is rapidly responding to consumer trends. As we gain more knowledge and have more access to the things that come in through the back door of the restaurant, our industry will be increasingly able to be responsive.”

Pictured, top right from left: PHA panelists Cheryl Dolven of Darden Restaurants and the NRA's Dawn Sweeney

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