Ronald’s in the Hospital
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Nutritionists think the chain’s offerings areun-Happy Meals.
By BETTY BRINK
It was not your typical McDonald’s crowd. Too many people in wheelchairs, for one thing. And there were as many older folks pushing walkers as young moms with baby strollers. That’s because the 30 or so customers at the multicolored McDonald’s at 1500 S. Main St. one recent Friday evening were in John Peter Smith Hospital, medical center of first resort for Tarrant County’s poorest and often sickest citizens.
This outlet’s been dishing out its high-cholesterol, high-sodium, and high-calorie meals from its location in JPS’ main lobby for almost 10 years. But the situation is only now coming under scrutiny from shocked nutritionists, many of whom were unaware that McDonald’s is Peter Smith’s only dining option for day patients, visitors, and — after 3 p.m. — staffers. One nutritionist called it “the county’s best-kept dirty little secret.”
Peter Smith, which saw more than half a million patients at its main and satellite locations in 2001, is one of dozens of hospitals nationwide that have opted for on-site fast-food chains (including Parkland in Dallas, which operates one of the largest McDonald’s outlets in the nation) as a way to feed people without cost —and sometimes with profit — to the hospital.
Such trends alarm health professionals such as Joice Carter, diabetic education specialist at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. She and others are concerned about the nation’s rising rates of obesity, heart disease, and Type II diabetes. Hospitals that contract with such restaurants are “sending a very wrong signal,” Carter said. “They are endorsing [junk food] as OK.”
Her concerns were given weight in June with the release of a study by researchers at the University of Michigan Health System showing that, among the country’s top-rated medical centers, 38 percent have fast-food franchises on their main medical campuses. Those include Johns Hopkins (Subway), UCLA Medical Center (Numero Uno Pizza), St. Louis’ Barnes-Jewish (Burger King), and the UMHS itself, with a Wendy’s that inspired the study.
“It’s hypocritical,” Dr. Peter Cram, the lead author of the study, said in an interview with a reporter for a medical web site. “For hospitals to say they promote healthy lifestyles and then offer these fast foods because it’s convenient and potentially profitable is a mixed message.”
Sharon Price, a Bedford nutritionist, found the JPS partnership with McDonald’s “deplorable.”
“A county hospital, of all places, should not be condoning a McDonald’s and all the unhealthy eating habits it stands for,” she said. Hospitals “should serve the public by promoting healthy eating habits and by setting an example for the entire community.”
Price works with private clients as well as physician-referred patients suffering from life-threatening diseases. She was unaware of the fast-food outlet at JPS. “I don’t condone a McDonald’s diet for anyone,” she said, “inside or outside the hospital.”
Two local pediatricians, who asked not to be named, are angered, they said, by Peter Smith’s willful disregard for the health of the children it serves, especially given the increasing rates of Type II diabetes now being found among minority children. “We are seeing an epidemic in a disease that is easily avoided by diet, by eating healthy foods, and here we have a hospital that is promoting just the opposite,” one doctor said.
The majority of the day patients at a county hospital, Carter pointed out, “are at the poorest state of their health or at the worst stage of their disease, and most of them have to be there all day.” The cheapest things on a McDonald’s menu are usually the highest in fat content, making them the most perilous for such patients, she said.
“Taking in such ‘nutrition’ even if you don’t take it in every meal, is dangerous,” Price said, because of the trans-fatty acids and saturated fats in which the chain fries its spuds and chicken nuggets. “They are the bullies on the block, knocking out the good stuff [the polyunsaturated fats] that helps keep the heart healthy.”
And even though McDonald’s recently announced it will begin using somewhat healthier cooking oils, Price said the change has more to do with public relations than substance. “Even in lower percentages, those fats will still be available to the body,” she said, “and can still do their damage.”
“We’ve got to practice what we preach,” Dr. David Grant said. The retired plastic surgeon, one of the founders of Medical Plaza Hospital, is now a nutrition consultant. He said that there is not only a correlation between fast-food diets and the growing numbers of overweight children, but health professionals are finding an alarming rise in the loss of bone density in adolescent girls with large intakes of carbonated drinks. The medical profession, he said, must lead the way, through education and example, in reversing these trends.
Contract terms require the McDonald’s franchise holder to pay the hospital district a base rent of $24,000 per year, plus 10 percent of the restaurant’s gross yearly sales in excess of $800,000. JPS pays for all of McDonald’s utilities — gas, electricity, water, and sewage — and repairs to the utilities.
Nutrition got short shrift in the 18-page contract, appearing in only one tortuously worded paragraph. There, the company agreed that “without committing McDonald’s to offer any particular product, or to employ any particular method ... McDonald’s will ... consider for use ... products and methods which will result in lower fat and calories than those generally available in McDonald’s Restaurants.”
That 1992 agreement, hospital spokesperson Theresa Singleton said, was negotiated by an earlier — and long gone — administration. “No one here now had anything to do with it,” she said. Still, the 20-year contract has an option for renewal every five years. Hospital CEO David Cecero did not return calls seeking comment on the health concerns involved.
These days, the McDonald’s Corporation pats itself on its back for making the nutritional breakdown of its products available on site to anyone who asks.
But when one of the slouching teen-age boys punching in orders at the JPS McDonald’s was asked for a copy of the chain’s nutritional listings, he looked confused. The young female manager who left the deep-fry machine to come to his rescue also came up empty-handed after a frantic search. “Sorry,” she said as she turned back to pour salt on the hot fries, “Guess we don’t have ’em.”
A search on the web, however, turned up the calorie counts for 63 products sold at most of Ronald’s restaurants. The Arch Deluxe with bacon is the most artery-clogging single entry at 590 calories and 1,150 grams of salt. But its most popular full meal, a Big Mac with super-sized fries and cola, is a hefty 1,410 calories. There are some healthier offerings. Grilled chicken salad deluxe is only 120 calories, but if you add that tasty ranch dressing and some croutons, those calories jump to 400. Bon appetit.
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