Is Gut Check getting soft? When we heard the Arby's Hungry for Happiness Tour Coming was coming to town August 14 and 15, our first instinct was to jeer. Ohh, how nice of the fast-food giant to travel the country peddling its wares to hungry, impressionable kids? The entire spectacle reeked of self-serving and horn-tooting -- good press and cultivation of future customers. How altruistic.
Maybe it's the 70-degree, zero-humidity August day that is making us sing kumbaya, but the Arby's tour actually raises an important question. (Cover your ears, Michael Pollan.) Is fast food intrinsically bad, or can it be a force for good?
The Hungry for Happiness Tour is the latest effort by the Arby's Foundation to end childhood hunger. It may come off as a little cheesy, but it's hard to heckle someone trying to "feed the children." The fact that childhood poverty is a serious problem in what is supposed to be one of the richest countries in the world is simply disturbing. What's even more disturbing is just how much this problem increases during the summer months when low-income kids are deprived of their free school lunch programs.
While we assumed that the Arby's folks outfitted their 18-wheeler with a roast-beef cannon, loaded it with behemoth beef and cheddars and planned to launch sandwiches into the streets, it turns out that they packed more nutritious ammunition. The point of the tour is actually to provide information to families who rely on free school lunches about the options available to them during the summer. At its St. Louis stop, Arby's has teamed up with Operation Food Search, the organization that provides information on assistance programs for struggling families.
And what is Arby's serving at this event? Child-portion turkey sandwiches, fresh fruit and low-fat milk. Are the kids sitting around playing roast beef themed video games at the tour? Well, no. They are engaging in active play. Still not content to quash our cynicism, we contacted a professor with Saint Louis University's Nutrition and Dietetics department to debunk the notion that Arby's could be a force for food good. This was to no avail.
"When you consider what they are serving at the event [downsized sandwiches, whole fruits and milk], and the fact that they are encouraging active play with their planned activities, what they are doing is within the same USDA dietary guidelines to which schools adhere." While she noted that kids should not make a regular habit of eating fast food, she conceded that every now and then, something like the Arby's kids' meal is OK.
We're no fools. We understand perfectly well that there is an undercurrent of "look at how good we are" positive PR going on here, coupled with a bunch of free advertising. At the end of the day, Arby's is still a fast food chain that peddles fatty, industrially processed food and sugar sweetened beverages to the masses. However, should we discount everything they do because of that fact? Is it possible that a fast food restaurant can simultaneously do good and ill for the community?
Perhaps, rather than trashing everything that fast food restaurants do across the board, we should embrace when they try to get things right, however self-serving these activities may be. As they are the source of many of our dietary problems, maybe we should hold them accountable for helping to foster solutions.