By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
McDonald’s may not be the cause of the obesity epidemic in Mississippi, but it’s trying to be part of the solution.
As of this week, 23 restaurants in Northeast Mississippi are offering the fast-food giant’s new Happy Meal, with an eye toward nutrition.
“This allows us to get good credit for trying to provide healthy choices, to be better recognized for that,” said franchisee Rob Hudson, who has seven stores in Tupelo, Pontotoc, Saltillo and New Albany.
The new Happy Meal automatically includes 1⁄4 cup of apple slices as a side to the choice of a hamburger, cheeseburger or chicken nuggets and a choice of beverage, including new fat-free chocolate milk, 1 percent lowfat white milk, fruit juice or a soft drink.
In addition to the apple slices, the meal also automatically comes with the new smaller size french fries. For customers who prefer apples only, an additional bag of apple slices is available to replace the fries.
“The emphasis now is on a healthy, balanced meal, not taking away something they love, like the fries,” Hudson said. “We’re just adding a healthy component.”
According to McDonald’s, the restaurants have offered apples as a requested choice in Happy Meals since 2004. But while recent research found that on average, 88 percent of McDonald’s customers were aware of the option, only 11 percent of them were opting for apples in Happy Meal purchases.
“I think the awareness is higher now than it was before,” Hudson said. “The reaction in our restaurants has been positive. Of course, I hear it in the restaurants, but when someone stops me in the grocery story to tell me something about my business, that’s a good indicator of a positive response.”
Steven Hunter, marketing supervisor for the Great Southern Region for McDonald’s, said Jackson actually served as a test market for the new Happy Meal.
“It was the test market for over a year for the national rollout,” Hunter said. “This meal will be rolled out in all 14,000-plus restaurants by the end of March.”
Hunter said Mississippi was chosen for several reasons, including the large number of Happy Meals sold in the state; Mississippi’s high rate of obesity; and Jackson’s large African-American population.
“We tested a lot of things before we came out with this actual bundle,” he said. “We tested different fruits and vegetables, and the fruits scored higher. That’s not to say the vegetable option isn’t something we could be thinking about in the future. We do 200 tests for one product. But everything that passes the tests doesn’t necessarily make it to the menu.”
Hudson said he thinks the new Happy Meal can be a teachable moment for parents.
“They can say, yes, you can have your fries, but you also need fruit,” he said. “I see this as a greater example of McDonald’s taking the lead in providing healthy choices from quick-service restaurants. Who better to take the lead than McDonald’s?”
THE OLD Hamburger Happy Meal with a hamburger, small fries and a 12-ounce Coke contains 593 calories and 20 grams of fat.
THE NEW Hamburger Happy Meal with a hamburger, kids’ fries, apple slices and 1 percent lowfat white milk has 470 calories and 16 grams of fat.