McDonald’s long run selling burgers and fries at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis is ending.
The hospital’s parent organization, Allina Health, announced the step Tuesday as part of a broader effort to reduce high-fat foods and sugar-sweetened beverages from a facility dedicated to treating obesity-related conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Abbott had weathered criticism for hosting McDonald’s for 25 years — even as other hospitals eliminated or curbed junk food options — but finally decided to end the restaurant’s lease as of May 31.
Sugar-sweetened beverages will be removed from 77 vending machines in Allina’s 13 hospitals around the Twin Cities area and more than 90 clinics as of the start of 2016, and high-fat foods will be trimmed from its cafeteria menus.
“As an organization focused on health, it is our responsibility to model and encourage healthy choices,” said Dr. Penny Wheeler, Allina’s president and chief executive.
Activist organizations such as Corporate Accountability International had pressed Abbott and other U.S. hospitals to remove their McDonald’s outlets, calling them “a food environment that promotes harm, not health.”
But Allina officials had resisted in past years, noting that it would be costly to break a long-term lease with McDonald’s and that the fast food chain had modified its menu at the hospital to include some healthier options.
Salads, yogurt, oatmeal and fruit are now part of the standard offerings at McDonald’s, which has been under investor pressure to broaden its menu and shake its image as a junk-food provider. The company’s charitable arm also has invested millions of dollars in Ronald McDonald Houses in the Twin Cities to shelter patients while they undergo long-term therapies for cancer and other diseases.
Wheeler said the lease with McDonald’s would have continued for another decade, but that Allina decided to pay the cost of terminating it early.
Wheeler noted that cigarettes were once sold in hospital gift shops, but would now be considered inappropriate.
“I suspect there will be a day when we look back at this and it will seem the same way,” Wheeler said.
Sends a mixed message
Several employees and families sat eating McDonald’s dinners Tuesday evening inside the hospital, many of them endorsing the decision.
Marnie McCuen, a recovery nurse, brought her own lunch to eat in the McDonald’s area. She often dines there when she doesn’t have enough time to fix her own dinner before working the late shift. It’s her only option, she said, but she is nevertheless happy to see it go.
“They just built a heart hospital 12 years ago,” she said. “Get rid of it.”
Judy Grack, a radiology technician, usually orders the fish fillet because it’s healthier, she said. Even so, she said it sends mixed messages.
“Patients have said to me: ‘You have a McDonald’s here? Seriously?’ ” she said. “A lot of people come here because it’s easier. There are not a lot of healthy options.”
Allina’s decision is just the latest in a movement by hospitals to embrace “wellness” factors such as diet and exercise as important complements to medical care.
HealthPartners and HealthEast hospitals in the Twin Cities have no fast-food restaurants. The University of Minnesota Medical Center has a Subway on its Riverside campus.
Wheeler said that one former Allina board member had considered it a failure that he stepped down while McDonald’s was still at the hospital, and she called him with the news Tuesday.
Allina has long endorsed diet and activity as keys to maintaining good health, spearheading innovative community projects such as the Heart of New Ulm, which tried to reduce the rate of obesity and cardiovascular disease in a community through a series of changes in fitness and food options.
Wheeler said the net result in New Ulm has been a 4-ton decline in aggregate weight.
“I don’t think they did that on deep-fried foods,” she said.
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744