Back in October of 2006, we wrote about Disney’s decision to change the “default” on its combo meals at its theme parks away from French Fries toward healthier produce items. Over the holidays the Pundit family visited Walt Disney World in Orlando and so got a chance to see how this was working out in practice.
First, we noted that the change did not seem to apply to all adult meals but did apply to all children’s meals.
French Fries (and soda) were available upon request. The “default” was that the kid’s meals included a choice of two out of three side dishes, and the choices were red seedless grapes, baby carrots or applesauce. Drinks were milk, apple juice or water.
Unquestionably the produce industry was selling a lot more grapes and baby carrot packs than if these had not been on the menu. Or even than if they were only available as an a la carte option.
Still, the way it functions, the notion of a “default” doesn’t really apply. You can’t just go up and order a “Number 2” because you have to say which two out of the three side-dish options (grapes, baby carrots and applesauce) and which beverage option (milk, apple juice or water) you want. It is as easy to say, “I want grapes and French Fries and we’ll take a Sprite,” as it is to say, “We want grapes and baby carrots and apple juice.”
In this sense it is not so much that Disney “changed” the default as they “eliminated” a default option, thus making people more purposeful in ordering their food.
As far as the effect of this on what people eat and Disney’s revenue, we can say that, for the Pundit family, we think we actually ate more food and gave Disney more of our money. Why? Well the Junior Pundits (ages 3 and 5) happen to like both grapes and baby carrots, so we requested those as our side dishes. Unfortunately, there were far too many people eating French Fries in the restaurant for us to be able to tell the kids that they don’t have French Fries here and they would have flipped out when they got their meals without Fries.
So, we bought the meals as we normally would, took the produce as our sides and then, also, bought a side order of Fries. We may have gotten some vitamin or phytochemical benefits from the produce but net, net, net — we ate more and spent more than we did when they just gave us a side of Fries. If the problem is obesity, consuming more calories is going to make the problem worse, not better. Talk about unintended consequences.
As far as improving public health goes, the short term impact is very slight because the products chosen are only marginally “better” for a child. The Junior Pundits have never had soda, but they practically have an IV with apple juice and it is not clear that this is so substantially better for them.
The hope has to be that changes such as these nudge the culture in the direction of healthy eating. It is not an easy shift. Part of the problem is that the very experience of a theme park, where eating at quick-serve restaurants is more akin to refueling than to dining, is, intrinsically, an experience that detracts from the thoughtful consideration of what we are eating.
The Pundit family found we always ate more healthfully if we took time to sit and eat at a full-service restaurant. This is the message of the Slow Food movement. But the children’s patience is limited and the expense significant for most people.
Hopefully Disney will continue with these efforts to encourage healthy eating. It would be nice to see them try more vegetable options such as green beans.
Throughout Disney World there were obvious efforts to do the right thing. The coffee kiosks often had some apples and oranges along with the cakes and pastries, and there were a number of venues selling produce.
Although we applaud these efforts, The Pundit sat and watched who was buying and we weren’t too encouraged by the likelihood that these efforts would impact public health. Based on the physiques of the people buying the fruit, it seemed as if the fruit provided a wonderful option for people who were very health- and fitness-conscious. We doubted, though, that these people were switching from ice cream to an apple; they looked more like the types who wouldn’t have bought anything if a healthy option wasn’t available.
If this observation is borne out by purchase statistics, it would confirm what many suspect: Businesses are not reform schools. In other words, Disney, McDonald’s, etc., don’t create eating habits. It is more correct to say that foodservice concepts spring up in response to changes in the world and that these changes — of technology and culture — are the drivers of our diets and health states.
The interesting question is whether selling more produce, changing default options and other similar efforts can move the cultural norm toward a healthier diet. On this question much depends.