Why the Other NRA Loves the First Lady

First lady Michelle Obama smiles as she walks to the West Front of the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21,2013, for the P
First lady Michelle Obama smiles as she walks to the West Front of the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21,2013, for the President Barack Obama's ceremonial swearing-in ceremony during the 57th Presidential Inauguration. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

This week, food labor rights advocate Saru Jayaraman is releasing her new book, Behind the Kitchen Door. The book brings much-needed attention to the 10 million restaurant workers who toil every day over our meals, often for slave wages. The National Restaurant Association (the other NRA) is largely responsible for lobbying to keep the federal-tipped minimum wage at a paltry $2.13 an hour. Unfortunately, the topic of worker rights never came up in the speech the first lady gave to the NRA in September of 2010.

As part of her Let's Move campaign to end childhood obesity, Michelle Obama has urged the food industry to make voluntary improvements to their products, along with some cajoling on their incessant marketing to children. But with the restaurant industry, the first lady has focused mainly on getting companies to improve the nutritional content of their children's meals. From her 2010 speech to the NRA:

I'm not asking any of you to make drastic changes to every single one of your recipes or to totally change the way you do business. But what I am asking is that you consider reformulating your menu in pragmatic and incremental ways to create healthier versions of the foods that we all love.

Then in February 2011, the New York Times reported that the first lady's team was "holding private talks over the past year" with the NRA to "get restaurants to adopt her goals of smaller portions and children's meals." (I wrote about the troubling aspects of Mrs. Obama's secret meetings with Walmart that same year.) A few months later came the restaurant industry's dream come true: a press conference with the first lady for the Darden Group, a massive corporation that owns such chains as Olive Garden and Red Lobster. The first lady was gushing, calling the occasion a "breakthrough moment in the restaurant industry." She continued:

Darden is doing what no restaurant company has done before -- they're not just making their kids menus healthier so that parents have more choices and more control, they're committing to make changes across the full menu at every single one of their restaurants. Darden is working to make the healthy choice the easy choice, and they're making it the delicious and fun choice too. I'm confident that if companies like Darden continue to be creative and innovative and keep our kids' best interests at heart then we will solve the challenge of childhood obesity and give all our kids the healthy futures they deserve.

It doesn't get much better than that. But was all the fuss really warranted? Among the commitments: "working toward a 10 percent reduction of calories and sodium over five years and a 20 percent reduction in calories and sodium over 10 years." Five and 10 years? I thought we were at a crisis stage? Other vague promises were to be implemented by 2012, such as displaying healthier menu options more prominently "when possible" and promoting milk, with free refills. (Score one for the dairy industry.)

Author Anna Lappé was also unimpressed. In an article for Grist called "Snake in the Olive Garden," she noted that given how insanely high in calories and sodium the chain's dishes already were, these improvements were "not exactly deserving of fancy press conferences and pats on the back, especially when it comes with the publicity glow of the first lady."

Moreover, Darden was an especially appalling restaurant group for Mrs. Obama to hitch her valuable PR wagon to, given the company's history of labor violations. Charges of discrimination and wage theft, for example, have resulted in multiple class action lawsuits that continue today.

Which brings us back to workers. It's great that the first lady is bringing much-needed attention to the problem of childhood obesity. And if she can convince the nation's chain restaurants to improve its menu items to make dining out easier for parents who want to feed their kids right, more power to her. However, it's disingenuous at best for Mrs. Obama to celebrate Darden for keeping "our kids' best interests at heart" when this company has shown nothing but disdain for its workers. Don't their kids count too?

Please support the workers' Dignity at Darden campaign, organized by Restaurant Opportunities Center United, the group that author Sara Jayaraman started. You can learn more about her book, Behind the Kitchen door, here.