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Make Way for the New "Virtuous" Fast Food

08/07/2014 05:25 EDT | Updated 10/07/2014 05:59 EDT
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Health advocates, rightly, have long been wary of the market and its promoting of consumption. Think of cigarette companies and their predatory practices, especially aimed at children, until they were stopped because of public outcry and various regulations. In terms of the food and beverages industry there are many questionable practices. Just one example: Advergames -- online activities targeting kids using fun to promote a brand of food etc, and positive associations with it.

But the market does respond if consumption patterns change. Over the last decades rates of smoking in Canada and the United States have fallen substantially and, of course, so too have the sales of cigarettes. (They are still peddled aggressively in other countries but that is another story.) Consumers' choice in alcohol, and thus its marketing, have also changed in recent decades; much more wine is consumed now in the United States and Canada than several decades ago.

Now there is some evidence that consumers are turning away from at least some forms of junk food and beverages. To the extent this is so the market will respond. One piece of evidence is the falling rates of soft drink (soda) consumption.

Another indication that some consumers are spurning junk food and beverages is the emergence of "virtuous fast food." That phrase is a contradiction in terms given how most of us, rightly, associate "fast food" with salt, grease, sugar and who knows what other unhealthy stuff. But last week the New York Times had a front page item "Hold the Regret? Fast Food Seeks Virtuous Side."

Details are in the story but the upshot is that a number of regional chains of restaurants like Tender Greens and Native Foods are offering such things as grass-fed beef, organic produce, sustainable seafood and fruits and vegetables that change with the seasons. And many of them seem to be doing well. Chipotle Mexican Grill recently reported a near 26 per cent increase in its quarterly profit. Veggie Grill was #7 on Restaurant Business magazine's list of the 50 fastest growing small chain restaurants in the Unites States. And they are successful despite higher costs -- and prices -- than the traditional fast food chains. And most of their emphasis is on healthy choices (where it should be) and not on counting calories (where it shouldn't be).

What should we make of the coming of "virtuous fast food"? We'll need to wait and see. It could be a passing fad that never takes hold in Canada. Or, it could be a signal that at least some consumers want more healthy food and beverage choices, including in terms of fast food. If there is a trend here government and public spirited associations should do what they can to nudge it along, including in terms of poor people and their often limited food and beverage choices.

The former should consider vouchers, as part of social assistance and other programs, that can be used at approved restaurants and food markets. (There are some related pilot programs being experimented with in the U.S.) The latter could take the lead of the Community Food Centre (CFC) in Regent Park in Toronto. The CFC doesn't just feed poor people nutritious meals (good in itself). It teaches people of limited means how to buy healthy ingredients and prepare them on a limited budget and participate in community gardens, and related programs.

None of this suggests that governments should remain idle on other fronts. There are many interventions that governments should try to promote healthier eating and drinking and more active lifestyles. But changing consumer appetites and responding markets are part of the larger terrain that shouldn't be ignored.

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