Why Mickey Mouse Is Shaping Up on Childhood Obesity

Disney World healthy food
Disney World healthy food

Mickey Mouse has taken on a healthier, more humanitarian bent recently.

Starting in 2015, the Walt Disney Co. (DIS) will begin applying strict nutritional standards to all food products advertised on the Disney Channel, Disney XD, Disney Junior, Radio Disney, and any Disney-owned website that's child- or family-oriented. Beyond that, the company will also be taking steps to make the food at its theme parks more healthy.

Why is Disney taking up the good-nutrition torch now? Is it altruism? Have they finally woken up and smelled the organically grown espresso? Or is it all a marketing ploy to ensnare even more parents and kids in the ever-growing, increasingly all-encompassing, and enormously profitable House of Mouse?

According to CEO Robert A. Iger, maybe a little of each.

Welcome to the Modern Age, Mickey

"Companies in a position to help with solutions to childhood obesity should do just that. This is not altruistic. This is about smart business," Iger says.

To its credit, the company seems to be taking up the cause of better nutrition for kids all on its own.

In 2006, it established its own internal nutrition guidelines, the first major media company to do so. The guidelines meet federal standards, promote fruit and vegetable consumption, and call for limiting calories, fat, sugar, and salt. (These nutrition guidelines won't apply to the company's advertising until 2015, when its current advertising contracts expire.)

Disney's growing health consciousness comes in the nick of time. Woe indeed to those companies that don't pay heed to the call for more greens and grains. Just ask McDonald's (MCD).

Dragged Kicking and Screaming Into Behaving Better

Last fall, McDonald's was faced with a ban in San Francisco on free toys in children's meals that didn't meet certain nutritional requirements. Rather than trying to make the meals more nutritious, McDonald's instead began charging a dime each for the toys.

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While it was true that parents would have to request the toy, McDonald's must have recognized that the kids would remember to ask even if the parents didn't. And for a nominal 10 cents extra, what parent would refuse?

However, McDonald's is beginning to see the light, though, and not just when it comes to nutrition.

With some prodding from the Humane Society of the United States, the burger maker has recently taken up the cause of demanding better breeding and living conditions for the pigs that eventually get consumed at its restaurants. And years after the company stopped using foam containers for its sandwiches, McDonald's has finally begun the switch from using foam coffee cups to paper.

Raising the Bar on Corporate Behavior

While McDonald's had to be pulled into the modern age, companies like Starbucks (SBUX) and Whole Foods Market (WFM), embraced corporate social responsibility long before it was a trend:

  • Starbucks' commitment to the community, employees and the environment goes to the core of its business model. At the height of the company's troubles several years ago, when CEO Howard Schultz was under pressure to cut employee benefits as a way to save money, he flat-out refused. And the company's work in creating a fair-pay system for its coffee growers was groundbreaking.

  • Whole Foods Market is also committed to corporate social responsibility. For starters, every food item in the store must be organically produced, and even the nonfood items must meet strict guidelines attesting to their general wholesomeness and eco-friendliness.

Somewhere between the examples of Starbucks and McDonald's, there's Disney. And to a greater or lesser degree, more companies are sure to follow their leads.

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A New Culture Club

As consumers become more socially conscious, they want the goods and services they buy to measure up. Given this trend in the general population, you'd be hard-pressed to find a big company these days that doesn't at least pay lip service to the idea of social responsibility.

Visit any large corporation's website and you're bound to find at least several pages devoted to its environmental, charitable, or employee and community wellness efforts. In truth, it doesn't take much. A simple action that costs a company very little or nothing at all can make a real difference in the mind of the consumer, and even give the company a leg up on marketing.

In the end, it may not even matter why Disney is doing what it's doing, so long as it's doing it.

John Grgurich is a regular contributor to The Motley Fool, and holds no positions in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Whole Foods Market, Walt Disney, and Starbucks. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Walt Disney, McDonald's Corporation Common S, Starbucks, and Whole Foods Market and writing covered calls on Starbucks.

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