A McDonald's in the Hospital?
There's a rumor going around that our new $217 million regional hospital will contain a McDonald's restaurant.
The folks who told me this couldn't believe it (but passed it on anyhow -- that's the way with rumors). They shouldn't have believed it, I discovered as I checked the rumor out. The news is, at best, premature. There will be space in the hospital for commercial ventures, one of them will be a restaurant, and McDonald's has expressed interest. The decision has not yet been made.
The disbelief was not so much that a fast-food giant will operate in our hospital, but that one would operate in any hospital. We associate hamburgers and french fries with words like "convenient," and "cheap," but not with words like "healthy." We can picture golden arches rising just about anywhere in America, anywhere in the world, even in Moscow -- but not in an institution devoted to health care.
Well, said the McDonald's public relations department, why not? Of their 8300 U.S. restaurants, 18 operate within hospitals, including Children's Hospital in Philadelphia, St. Joseph's in Phoenix, Jackson Memorial in Miami, Kosair Children's in Louisville, and Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Mass. The restaurants serve staff and visitors, of course, not patients. They do not displace the hospitals' food services. They run like any McDonald's, with the same menu and prices. Depending on arrangements with the hospitals, they may have non-standard architecture, decor, or operating hours.
Said the McDonald's PR person, our restaurants are bright, sunny, warm, familiar, clean, inexpensive. That can count for a lot in a hospital.
Furthermore, she said, our food is nutritious; it can form part of a balanced diet. Whereupon she sent me an extensive press package, including a booklet (available to customers at any of their restaurants) with a nutritional analysis of all McDonald's foods.
Like everything McDonald's does, from its advertising to its plastics recycling program, its nutritional standards fill me with a mixture of admiration and despair. This is a heads-up, high-quality company. If anyone could purvey healthy food to millions of people, they could. And they do, sort of, as far as the mentality of mass marketing and instant gratification will allow. For example:
McDonald's has added salads to its menu, and no-egg breakfasts and a no-fat-no-cholesterol apple bran muffin. It is replacing its soft-serve ice cream with low-fat frozen yogurt and sorbet. It has reduced the fat content of its milk and shakes, and it's working on reduced-oil salad dressings. It is currently running a 500-restaurant test of an all-vegetable shortening for french fries. "Our customers are tough french fry critics," says the PR department. McDonald's currently fries potatoes in a mixture of cottonseed oil and beef fat.
That's nutritional progress. But a Big Mac with medium fries still gives you more sodium than you should have in an entire day of eating (plus 880 calories, over half of which come from fat). A single Egg McMuffin gives you three-fourths of your daily sodium allotment and 290 calories, a third of which come from fat. McDonald's prides itself on its special lettuce, which is picked a week early for better taste, but it also prides itself on an innovative packaging system that gives chopped lettuce a 10-day shelf life.
A restaurant with health as a top priority would not serve 10-day old lettuce, much less lettuce grown with pesticides. It would not not use white-flour rolls laced with calcium propionate ("to help retain freshness" says the booklet). It would use whole-grain flour. Instead of an additive to mimic freshness, it would use breads that are actually fresh.
Instead of french fries imbued with any kind of fat, it would serve baked or mashed potatoes. Instead of sugary soft drinks, unadulterated fruit juice. Instead of eggs and beef produced in animal factories, stuffed with feed containing antibiotics and hormones, it would find animal products grown naturally and purely.
Impossible, of course, to find food of such high standards on the McDonald's scale of operation -- 250 million pounds of lettuce a year, 533 million pounds of ground beef, 150 million pounds of cheese, 1 billion eggs. If McDonald's insisted, however, it could instigate the production of such food, improve the health of its customers and also the health of farmers, animals, and a tremendous area of agricultural land. It could probably transform the American food industry.
In this free country McDonald's has a right to sell food at the healthy end of the junk-food spectrum, and every individual has a right to eat it. But not, it seems to me, in a place whose central purpose is, or ought to be, the promotion of health. Not in a hospital. Surely our hospital can find an entrepreneur who can provide a sunny, warm, bright, clean, environment and also quick, inexpensive, good-tasting, and truly healthy food.
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)