COLUMN: Enjoy a delicious ‘Somewhat Pleased Meal’

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Aug. 14, 2011 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Enjoy a delicious ‘Somewhat Pleased Meal’
By Aaron J. Brown

After last week’s diatribe about body mass problems it shouldn’t surprise you that my family goes to McDonald’s sometimes. The fast food giant has been in the news recently for its decision to change its ubiquitous Happy Meals. The new kids’ meals will still include a toy, but half as many fries and a small serving of apple slices standard with purchase.

Let us pause for a moment to consider that the most far-reaching plan ever enacted to combat America’s obesity problem boils down to the mandatory issuance of apples. And yes, fewer fries. But near as I can tell McDonald’s still plans to sell its delicious fries to any customer who demands them.

The company’s decision isn’t terribly surprising for the times. Worried about lawsuits and public relations, McDonald’s can now say they’ve tried something to combat the troubling levels of youth obesity found across America. Nevertheless, I wonder how well this will actually work.

One recent study in the journal Health Affairs shows that the cost of eating healthy foods is considerably higher than eating less healthy foods. Among other things, the Seattle-based research showed a significant decline in food costs for every 1 percent increase in fat and sugar intake.

We know from experience that you can make a meal at home cheaper than a fast food restaurant, but amid challenging schedules fast food is often the simplest solution. Busy families or those in transition face this dilemma nearly every day. But to make a nutritionally-balanced meal at home, one in keeping with USDA recommendations, often puts the price at or above a fast food selection. 

You’ve probably seen the sales on cauldrons of cheese balls or oversized sacks of potato chips. Shopping for produce or other better choices might be possible for many people, but less so for people around the poverty line. The junk is cheaper, plain and simple. It’s possible to eat healthily on a small amount of money (just ask my wife, a frugal living blogger who writes about this all the time). But doing so is not easy and the skills involved aren’t built in.

It’s essentially a market problem. If you believe that America is a land of supply and demand, a capitalist system, you must accept that our economy rewards perhaps even requires poor nutrition. McDonald’s itself is a blue chip stock, part of most 401(K) plans. We need that stock to do well and as much as you’d like people to buy salads when they go there, they don’t. I’ve had the salads. They’re pretty good. But holy mother of everything, have you tried the double cheeseburgers. They cost less than $2!

On a lighter note, I was surprised to learn McDonald’s is the world’s largest distributor of toys. They certainly are the largest distributor of toys I find behind the couch. Right now you can get a Smurf in your Happy Meal. Before that they had the Star Wars toys.

Over a series of successive weeks our three boys managed to gather quite a collection of McDonald’s Star Wars light sabers. But here’s the catch. One light saber is retractable. One lights up. Another makes the “bwoow nyaawww” sound. No one light saber does all three things. This makes for an interesting, if confusing introduction to the Star Wars cannon.

We tried to reinforce how to use the light sabers by showing the boys the original Star Wars last week. Our oldest boy wasn’t paying attention and our youngest twins only fully realized how scary Darth Vader is (very scary.) They made me turn off the movie when he was using the Force to squeeze the neck of an Imperial officer. So as far as they know he’s still out there, doing that.

The Star Wars experience, coupled with the new Happy Meals, only shows that efforts to influence the markets of human activity don’t always turn out as planned. Here’s to some healthy eating. Somewhere.

Aaron Brown is a writer and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He is the author of the blog and the book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

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