Did you hear the one about the time a First Lady and an Olympic swimmer walked into a Washington, D.C. Subway restaurant?
— SUBWAY Restaurants (@SUBWAY) January 23, 2014
Turns out Michelle Obama and Michael Phelps were joining with the Partnership for a Healthier America to announce that Subway has signed on to the first lady’s challenge to the private sector “to leverage the power of marketing to promote healthier products and decrease the marketing of unhealthy products to kids,” according to this news release. To meet the challenge, Subway committed to:
- Limit items on its kids’ menus to those that meet “strong nutritional guidelines informed by federal standards for the national school lunch program,” like apples as a side and low-fat or non-fat milk or water as a default beverage. (I guess this means kids can still ask for a Coke.)
Launch a three-year marketing campaign for kids with a specific focus on eating more fruits and vegetables.
Focus all kid-oriented in store merchandising on only the healthier options available in its restaurants, and update training to teach “sandwich artists” to encourage kids to choose apples.
I have questions about how effective the campaign will be. Who cares what the marketing materials say when kids have a tired mom placing their order and an eye-level plexiglass case of chocolate chip cookies at every Subway cash register? And that health turkey sandwich quickly becomes unhealthy when you ask your sandwich artist to squeeze on a few tablespoons of high-fat mayonnaise.
But it’s natural that a public figure with a real interest in childhood obesity and school nutrition would expand her efforts to the private sector. (She’s even enlisted the Muppets.) Kids are the targets of enormous food marketing campaigns (and much of that marketing takes place at school). And many low-income children struggle with obesity because, in the absence of grocery stores and healthy alternatives, their families are drawn to fast food and cheaper options.
Research has shown that confronting childhood obesity will take an attack from all sides: education to build healthier habits, better meals at school, better meals at home, and a change in the ways companies sell their products to children. For Subway, this is either a small, meaningful step in the right direction, or an easy way to get a beautiful, influential public figure with great arms to eat their cold cut sandwiches in view of a photographer. Or maybe it’s both.
Photo: First Lady Michelle Obama and local students eat at a Subway sandwich store in Washington, D.C., on Thursday during an event to announce the chain’s recent recognition by the Partnership for A Healthier America. --Nick Wass/Subway/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.