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Michael Donahue, co-founder of Lyfe Kitchen, wants to convert customers “who have always thought healthy food has to taste like straw.” Credit Photograph by Andrew B. Myers for The New Yorker

Like many of their millennial peers, Kathleen Davis and Andrea Nguyen eat out a lot. “Nothing fancy,’’ Davis told me one recent evening, as she took a sidewalk table next to mine at Sweetgreen in Nolita. “We want what we eat to be healthy and tasty,’’ Davis said. “Decent prices matter, too.” The women were working their way through one of the restaurant’s seasonal specialties—the “wastED” salad, which consists almost entirely of carrot peels, broccoli stalks, roasted bread heels, cabbage cores, and other ingredients that are usually tossed out.

Ten years ago, no American would have regarded a bowl of vegetable scraps dressed with lime-cilantro or spicy pesto vinaigrette as fast food. Many people wouldn’t have considered it food at all. But millions of diners, fuelled by concerns about their health and the state of the environment—and propelled by a general distaste for industrially produced and highly processed food—have begun to shun the ubiquitous chains that have long shaped the American culinary character. Sweetgreen and places like Lyfe Kitchen, Chipotle, Smashburger, Five Guys, Shake Shack, and Dig Inn now occupy the rapidly expanding middle ground between restaurants with tablecloths and the giant fast-food chains. The category, referred to broadly as fast casual dining, is growing more quickly than any other segment of the market.

For more than fifty years, eating at fast-food restaurants has been an almost clinically impersonal experience: the food is rapidly prepared, remarkably cheap, utterly uniform, and served immediately. The cheeseburger you get at a McDonald’s in Orlando is exactly the same as the one you get at a McDonald’s in San Francisco, Montreal, or Little Rock. Each month, more than two hundred million people eat at least one meal at one of the hundred and sixty thousand fast-food restaurants in the United States. McDonald’s alone serves twenty-six million people every day at its fourteen thousand American outlets—more than the population of Australia. Millions more visit Burger King, Wendy’s, Subway, Pizza Hut, Dunkin’ Donuts, In-N-Out Burger, as well as the other chains that occupy virtually every highway, strip mall, and town center in the nation.

Almost seventy per cent of customers at places like McDonald’s, which are known in the trade as quick-service restaurants, get their food at a drive-through—a process that, according to last year’s Drive-Thru Performance Study, conducted by QSR, an industry magazine, takes an average of 219.97 seconds and costs most people about five dollars. I asked the women at Sweetgreen if they ever patronized McDonald’s or similar restaurants. Davis shuddered and said nothing. After a brief silence, Nguyen owned up to eating at McDonald’s once or twice a month, but not for a Big Mac or French fries. “They have some surprisingly good food these days,’’ she said in a confessional whisper. “But I would never be seen walking down the street with a McDonald’s bag in my hand.’’ I asked why. “Shame,” she replied. “I don’t know anyone who would feel differently.’’

Hers is a commonly voiced sentiment. Speed and convenience matter as much as ever to American diners. But increasingly people also demand the information that places like Sweetgreen offer. They want to know what they are eating and how it was made; they prefer to watch as their food is prepared, see the ingredients, and have a sense of where it all came from. And they are willing to pay more for what they perceive to be healthier fare. Most of these restaurants, where meals generally cost between eight and fifteen dollars, rely on a few ingredients, stress the quality of their food, and often treat the farms that supply their vegetables with the kind of reverence once reserved for fine wineries.

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The rise of the healthy fast-food chain has been aided by the easing recession, but it comes largely at the expense of traditional competitors. None have struggled more than McDonald’s, one of the world’s most recognizable brands. In March, the company replaced its chief executive with one of his deputies. Two months later, it ended its long-established practice of issuing monthly reports on individual store sales. And this year, for the first time since 1970, McDonald’s will close more locations in the U.S. than it opens. When I asked Dan Coudreaut, the company’s executive chef and vice-president of culinary innovation, what mattered most to McDonald’s, taste, price, or efficiency, he sighed. “Our main job is to create value for our shareholders, for our company, for our restaurateurs,’’ he said. “We are not a nonprofit organization and we are not married to any one area. We are married to being a successful business. Society is shifting in a major direction, so guess what—McDonald’s is going to shift, too.’’

The company is trying everything it can to win back deserters. Last month, in keeping with prevailing desires and current nutritional wisdom, McDonald’s abandoned margarine for butter. The company announced recently that it would stop selling chickens that have been raised with antibiotics that could affect human health, and milk from cows that had been treated with growth hormones. They introduced low-calorie “artisan grilled chicken” sandwiches and, this month, began serving breakfast all day—fulfilling a request that the Egg McMuffin crowd has been making for years. McDonald’s has also jumped on the seasonal-food bandwagon, having sold about thirty-seven million Cuties, the brand of clementines that come with Happy Meals. The company has even begun to introduce restaurants with digital kiosks, where customers can build their own dishes on a touch screen, then grab a G.P.S. locator, find a seat, and wait until the freshly made product is delivered by a server who has homed in on the signal.

McDonald’s describes all these changes as an attempt to “reassert” itself as “a modern, progressive burger company.’’ Nonetheless, daunting questions hover over its ambitious agenda, and over the entire industry. Can traditional restaurant chains, indelibly branded as places to eat cheap food fast, switch to healthier fare and stay profitable? And to what degree can companies like Sweetgreen thrive by offering a fresher, more nutritious alternative?

Fast food has become a synonym for bad food. Yet, the industrial farm system that has made it possible for McDonald’s and many other chains to sell cheeseburgers for a dollar has also enabled Americans to spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than people do in any other country. At the start of the First World War, food purchases consumed half the average paycheck; today the figure is six per cent. According to federal statistics, an American in 1919 had to work for two and a half hours to earn enough money to buy a chicken; these days it would take less than fifteen minutes of labor.

Fast food has transformed America, but we hardly invented it. The most impoverished citizens of ancient Rome, unable to store supplies or afford cooking oil, often ate at booths that served what we would now call pizza. According to a twelfth-century account of life in London, travellers who were unwilling “to wait fasting till fresh food is bought and cooked’’ could “hasten to the river bank, and there all things desirable are already to their hand.’’ And in 1802 Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third President and its first foodie, asked the White House chef, Honoré Julien, to prepare “potatoes served in the French manner.” The potatoes, “deep-fried while raw, in small cuttings,” have been on our dinner tables ever since. It wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century, however, that, beguiled by the open road, and the drive-through window, the United States truly became what Eric Schlosser described in his 2001 book: a “fast-food nation.’’

In less than a century, our ability to produce cheap calories on a massive scale, long considered the signature triumph of American agriculture, has become a genuine threat to the nation’s health. We wouldn’t be able to eat fifty billion hamburgers a year, and at least as many orders of French fries, unless thousands of the farms that provided the meat and potatoes were also factories. Along the way, the term “fast food’’ has come to describe so many options that its meaning has vanished. Sweetgreen serves meals you can purchase in three minutes and eat in five; that’s fast food. But it consists of salads and fresh soups, not processed meat, fattening sodas, or fries. The latter is the kind of fast food that people associate with McDonald’s; it’s also what millions of Americans eat at home every day.

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For years, public health officials and food scientists have noted that, as long as gallons of sugary soda and vats of French fries are cheap and readily available, poor eating habits will be hard to change. “In 2012, companies produced enough regular soda to supply every single person in America, regardless of age, with nearly thirty gallons,’’ Marion Nestle wrote in her recently published book “Soda Politics.” Nestle, who is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, estimates that five per cent of young children, sixteen per cent of adolescents, and twenty per cent of young adults consume more than five hundred calories a day from soda. Most of those calories are sugars.

People throughout the world are getting fatter. The World Health Organization refers to the epidemic as “globesity.” Yet nowhere is the trend as pronounced as it is in this country. In the United States, per-capita calorie consumption rose from 2,109 calories a day in 1970 to 2,568 calories in 2010, according to the Department of Agriculture. That’s equivalent to adding two slices of Domino’s pizza to the daily diet of every American. The average man today weighs a hundred and ninety-five pounds, thirty pounds more than in 1960. Seventy-eight million people were considered obese in 2012, twice the rate of forty years ago.

There are many causes of obesity and of chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease. But scores of studies have demonstrated that they are all at least partly related to the food we eat. By 1952, the American Heart Association had already identified obesity as a cardiac risk factor that can be lessened with exercise and a proper diet. Nearly every year since, at least one federal agency or private organization has issued a similar report.

There is also a biological component to our addiction to fast food. Because our brains evolved at a time when food was scarce, we are biologically predisposed to consume a diet that is high in calories, sugar, and fat. And that is exactly what Happy Meals, and most processed food sold in American supermarkets, offer. When you eat a Big Mac, your blood sugar soars. Your brain then releases a flood of chemicals, such as dopamine, that induce pleasure and contribute to a tendency to eat compulsively. At high enough levels, the salt and sugar in food can be addictive; you crave them like a drug.

“The data is so overwhelming the field has to accept it,” Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said recently. “We are finding tremendous overlap between drugs in the brain and food in the brain.” Excessive salt causes dehydration, and almost all hamburgers, whether they are from places like McDonald’s or more upscale outlets like Shake Shack, contain very high levels of sodium. The salt can make people think they are hungry again soon after eating, when in fact they’re simply thirsty. “The human body has evolved a sophisticated regulatory system to protect against weight loss but not against weight gain,’’ Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and an expert on obesity, told me recently. “Our bodies perceive a diet as a form of starvation, and your metabolism will slow accordingly.” That made sense in the Pleistocene Era, when it was essential to find, consume, and store calories for as long as possible, but it does not make sense in our essentially sedentary society.

“When you combine our biological predilections with the economic forces that prevail today, you can understand why people love Big Macs and Whoppers,’’ Marion Nestle said. “They are what our brain prefers. Evolution is not going to change that equation in the near term.”

Nestle, along with most of her colleagues, argues that the fast food consumed at restaurants, often lacking key nutrients and laden with fat, contributes significantly to poor health. “The single most important problem with food in this country is that it is vastly overproduced, and the single most important nutritional problem is obesity,” Nestle said. “These issues are clearly related, and cheap food is a factor in both. Food companies compete fiercely for our food dollars and do everything they can to induce us to eat their products and to eat more food, regardless of the effects on waistlines and health.”

A few weeks ago, I drove from Chicago to the suburb of Oak Brook, where McDonald’s has its global headquarters. While passing the exit for the Hinsdale Tollway Oasis, I noticed that it offered travellers a choice of eating at Panda Express, Subway, 7-Eleven, Dairy Queen, Starbucks, KFC, Taco Bell, or McDonald’s. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, but I kept moving and soon passed the corporate-headquarters building, on McDonald Plaza; eventually I turned onto Kroc Drive and followed it to Ronald Lane, where I parked near the main administration building. Until a few days earlier, when I purchased a Big Mac at the airport before boarding my flight to Chicago, I hadn’t eaten at McDonald’s in years.

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The main building, made of red brick, has a giant atrium and an airy three-story wall of windows. Many of the corridors are labelled with street signs: Big Mac Boulevard, for instance, and McNugget Row. In a capitalist echo of the sayings of Chairman Mao, walls are adorned with inspirational quotes from Ray Kroc, the company’s founder: “It’s not real until it’s in the restaurants’’ was one. Kroc also said, “I believe in God, family, and McDonald’s—and in the office that order is reversed” and “We’re not in the hamburger business. We’re in show business.” I was soon ushered into a sort of kitchen anteroom with a large Formica counter. Dan Coudreaut and Lynn Yu, the director of nutrition on Coudreaut’s Menu Innovation Team, were already there. Coudreaut, an earnest man with spiky brown hair and a hardworking smile, has been with the chain for more than a decade. His previous job was at the Four Seasons.

Coudreaut is the guardian of McDonald’s menu, which in many respects makes him the most influential chef in the world. When he decides to add or alter a dish, ripples are felt throughout the American food system. I asked him about the company’s switch from margarine to butter. “Butter tastes better, and it is more in line with where our society’s mind-set is moving,’’ Coudreaut said. “I can understand butter on a muffin; I can’t understand liquid margarine, which has fifteen or sixteen ingredients.’’ The shift to butter means that McDonald’s will increase its dairy use by five or six hundred million pounds of milk each year—enough to have produced all of last year’s domestic butter exports. The impact on the dairy industry will be enormous, and because McDonald’s is doing it similar chains are certain to follow.

Like most professional chefs, Coudreaut used words like “healthy” and “natural” to describe his menu. But culinary terms mean different things to different people, and there is no standard definition of the word “natural.” For that reason, the term is hard to avoid in American supermarkets, where it is often stamped on products that aren’t particularly nutritious. Healthy food itself is a vague concept, often defined by what it is not: food that contains too much fat, salt, or sugar, or food that lacks vitamins, fibre, nutrients, and minerals. Whole-grain products and vegetables are healthy food; so is lean meat. Nothing on the menu at McDonald’s poses a danger to the health of someone who eats there only once a month. But who does that? People spend nearly half their food budget on meals prepared away from home, and in the process they tend to consume more fat, more salt, a greater number of calories, and fewer nutrients.

As I spoke to Coudreaut and Yu, a woman walked through a door I hadn’t previously noticed and presented me with a beta version of the company’s new Egg McMuffin, which was released this month. The Egg McMuffin is particularly important to the chain, which sells more breakfast food than any other restaurant in America. It consists of a slice of Canadian bacon and American cheese on top of an egg, layered between the two halves of an English muffin. I had never eaten one. Coudreaut was beaming. “Tell me,” he said. “Is this junk food or is this a beautiful egg on a good muffin?”

Fortunately, my mouth was full and I didn’t have to give my answer: both. The sandwich was bland, but the egg was real, not reconstituted from liquid, and the calories in an Egg McMuffin—three hundred—are not excessive. But the sandwich, which included an ingredient McDonald’s describes as “melty American cheese,’’ carries almost a third of the daily recommended allowance of saturated fat and twenty per cent of the sodium.

“The architecture of the McDonald’s Egg McMuffin has not changed,’’ Coudreaut said. “What made it a wonderful sandwich back in the seventies, when they first came out, has not changed.” Then, rising from his seat and waving has hands with excitement, he said, “This English muffin is going back to what we had. Fluffy nooks and crannies. And real butter. Look at the natural juice from the Canadian bacon.” He pointed to another dish that had just arrived, a salad with the new “artisan grilled chicken,” and said, “No artificial flavors or preservatives or phosphate. It’s basically pantrylike ingredients you would expect to use at home. A little bit of lemon. Herbs. Clean flavor. Not a lot of stuff going on.’’

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That is where he lost me. The Egg McMuffin seemed more like a compromise than an innovation, with butter as its main attraction. Would it appeal to consumers who have fled McDonald’s in search of what they hope will be a healthier experience? Probably not. In one recent study, food scientists surveyed 19,417 dishes at major chains. They found that new lower-calorie options had little impact on the number of calories customers consumed. Chains may be introducing new and more healthful items, but that’s not the food most people go there to eat. The Big Mac, Quarter Pounder with cheese, and French fries remain the holy trinity of the Golden Arches, and there isn’t a healthy bite in any of them. Coudreaut must be aware that by shifting its mission McDonald’s risks losing not only younger customers but also its core clients.

Coudreaut and Yu continued to march me through McDonald’s many nutritional initiatives. There were smoothies with fewer calories, buttermilk fried chicken, and, across the room, a giant basket of lettuce and kale. Yogurt was everywhere. I asked Chef Dan, as everyone calls him, if he thought most McDonald’s food could be regarded as good for the people who eat it. His voice tightened. “I believe strongly as a chef there is no forbidden food,’’ he said. “Look at that grilled chicken. No artificial colors or flavors. Minimally processed. No preservatives. Technically, under a U.S.D.A. banner we could call it all natural. But we wouldn’t call it natural. We call it artisan chicken.’’

He continued: “That is where our guests want us to go rather than lower calories, lower salt, lower this, lower that. People would like to believe and to trust that the ingredients they are eating in their food are real in the truest sense.” Then why, I asked, have sales continued to slide? Public opinion seems to differ sharply from the vision he was presenting. “We do have a problem,’’ he conceded. “Obviously. When we say one-hundred-per-cent pure beef, no fillers, no additives, people still don’t believe it. And I don’t know how to get my arms around that. It is very frustrating.”

I had spent much of the previous day eating a different kind of fast food, at a chain called Lyfe Kitchen. “I see this place becoming the McDonald’s of the future,’’ Michael Donahue, the fifty-eight-year-old co-founder and chief brand officer, told me as we entered one of its outlets on Chicago’s Near North Side. “The good McDonald’s. The healthy, inviting, sustainable McDonald’s. The place we all want to eat. The place with very little salt or butter or cream or fat. Nothing processed. Nothing added.”

The first Lyfe Kitchen opened in Palo Alto four years ago. The company has since opened seventeen more, and plans to have sixty within a couple of years. Like Sweetgreen, Lyfe spends liberally on the physical surroundings of its restaurants, which are modern and spare. Customers can sit at reclaimed-wood tables on chairs made from recycled water bottles. It feels like the type of restaurant one might find in a high-end Finnish department store. Many of Lyfe’s buildings are even Well certified, which means they meet particularly high standards for air quality, water, and light.

Donahue refers to Lyfe’s approach as “fast fine dining.” There are no paper plates; customers eat on china. Servers deliver the food, and each diner receives a G.P.S. tracking device that the waiters can find when the order is ready. There are cocktails, wine, and craft beer, which, because of the added cost, is unusual in this kind of restaurant. There are three menus: E, for I eat everything; V, for vegan and vegetarian; and G, for gluten free. The food is baked, grilled, steamed, or boiled, but never fried. At Lyfe you can order anything from a Vegan Crispy Scallopini and Shishito Pepper Sandwich to fish tacos. The menu is enormous, and enormously varied. Lyfe Kitchen is slightly more expensive than its competitors, although most meals cost less than twenty dollars, and a thrifty customer can get away for ten.

As we talked, Donahue referred often to McDonald’s, where he spent two decades as the chief communications officer. He started Lyfe Kitchen in 2010 with another McDonald’s refugee, Mike Roberts, the former chief operating officer. (Roberts left his position at Lyfe early this year, after the Carlisle Corporation became a major investor.) At Lyfe there are no dishes with more than six hundred calories or a thousand milligrams of sodium. One can eat quickly, but the restaurant has electrical outlets at every table, and the owners encourage people to stay as long as they like.

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They were determined to offer dishes with a balanced distribution of nutrients and far less salt, sugar, and fat than is common in fast-food meals. The trends suggested that customers would be waiting for them. At least since 2013, as the economy began to improve, repeated surveys, conducted by groups as diverse as the American Medical Association and McDonald’s itself, have reported that the nation’s eating habits were undergoing a major transformation. In one such survey, by Deloitte, more than three-quarters of respondents said they had healthy eating habits; at least half said that portion sizes at fast-food restaurants were too large; and eighty-three per cent believed that the typical fast-food menu didn’t offer enough healthy choices. In another study, carried out last year by the industry research company Technomic, seventy-three per cent of people between the ages of twenty-two and thirty-seven said they would be more likely to buy food described as “local.”

Donahue adheres to the “if you build it they will come” school of healthy dining. “Please don’t describe Lyfe Kitchen as a health-food place,” Donahue said. “I am not worried about the people who think seriously about what they eat. If they are not already here, they will get here. But we need to attract the people who have always assumed that healthy food has to taste like straw. If they try it, we have them.”

We were standing in front of the main counter, next to what looked like an oversized bookcase but was actually an herb garden. Four foot-deep troughs had been filled with basil, marjoram, cilantro, dill, fennel, chicory, chives, and other, more exotic herbs and greens. The original menu was created in part by Oprah Winfrey’s former personal chef, Art Smith. He also inspired the herbal display case, which dominates the entrance of every Lyfe restaurant. Donahue said that when he started the restaurant he knew far more about salt, sugar, and fat than about anything with roots or seeds. “These are the ingredients that chefs will use for future food,’’ he continued, petting a sprig of basil. “And they will take the place of sugar and salt, and you will not sacrifice taste. We tested that stuff for nearly a year and a half, hundreds of products. Everyone was locked and loaded on taste. We knew that if we didn’t have that nothing else was going to matter, because people would just walk away.”

Donahue and Roberts planned to open at least a thousand restaurants. But they soon ran up against an insurmountable obstacle: the American agricultural system, which is set up to distribute many calories at a low cost. That works for chains like McDonald’s, which sell food cheaply and focus more on value than on quality. Large chains freeze their food and often ship it from one end of the country to another. When I asked Erik Hess, the McDonald’s senior vice-president in charge of customer experience, whether his customers cared more about what they spend at McDonald’s or what they ate, he replied: “Spend.” The big chains and the newer alternatives have clashing world views and different problems: McDonald’s can’t afford to sell only fresh local, seasonal products, and Lyfe Kitchen can’t afford not to.

At the new chains, customers care deeply about what they put in their mouths. But high-quality products require expensive ingredients. Lyfe Kitchen offers a grass-fed steak for twenty dollars; raising cattle on grass can take a year longer than raising livestock the conventional way, which makes the animals much more expensive to feed. McDonald’s buys seven hundred million pounds of beef a year. No small group, no matter how popular, can compete with their prices, particularly if it stresses the quality of its ingredients. For places like Lyfe Kitchen and Sweetgreen, it’s never easy to guarantee fresh produce, sell only humanely raised meat, and offer a wide variety of dishes, none of which exceed six or eight hundred calories. To offer those choices on a national scale will require an agricultural system that rewards regional farming networks.

Today, though, taxpayers heavily subsidize corn and soybeans, two crops that feed livestock and help create the processed food that public health officials have warned us for years to stop eating. Few federal incentives exist for farmers to grow a more varied selection of vegetables or to motivate consumers to eat them. And at least half of our calories come from food that is subsidized by the government, a figure that has held steady for years.

“A value meal at these places is a big burger, some fries, and a sugary beverage,’’ Kelly Brownell said. “Every time you buy one of those meals, Uncle Sam is standing there with his wallet open. The grain that feeds the cows is subsidized. The oil used to cook the fries is subsidized, and the high-fructose corn syrup used in sodas is subsidized, too. But if you walk in the next day and order a salad, a piece of fruit, and some tea you will be on your own. Uncle Sam will not be there to help you.”

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Without new funding priorities, most farmers will find it hard to focus on crops that would improve the nation’s health. Marion Gross realizes that, and she is caught in the bind. Gross, a charismatic woman with an electric smile, is in charge of McDonald’s vast American supply chain. Gross knows that the company can’t stay its current course but worries that “too much pandering” will scare away its steadfast base. She suggested that one way to remain relevant would be to promote the company’s ability to provide fresh food. “We don’t have to store things forever,’’ she said. “We have twenty-six million customers visiting us every day. We need to make that case.” But she added that it was not easy to anticipate demand cycles when you are buying two billion eggs a year.

“The word ‘nimble’ is not in our DNA,’’ she said, smiling. “So when we shift products we have to think deeply about what we are doing.” This year, McDonald’s faced a wholly unexpected challenge. American chicken flocks were decimated by the worst outbreak of avian influenza in the country’s history. Tens of millions of egg-laying hens were slaughtered. Prices soared. “And it could not have happened at a worse time,’’ Gross said. “Because of this all-day breakfast thing.” The company had widely advertised its switch to serving all-day breakfast, but an enterprise that buys that many eggs needs a steady supply to do so.

Earlier this year, McDonald’s announced that it would no longer sell chickens that had been raised on human antibiotics. The decision had been expected and, clearly, it was made to appeal to the same people who have started to eat at places like Chipotle and Shake Shack. But the effect was powerful nonetheless. Costco, which sells millions of rotisserie chickens, followed suit within days. Soon after the announcement, Tyson Foods, the country’s largest processor of chicken and a major supplier to McDonald’s, also announced that it would stop using human antibiotics to raise chickens in its U.S. operations by September of 2017. In theory, McDonald’s has the power to fundamentally alter the food system; for instance, along with other large chains, the company could truly embrace nutritious dishes—making them the default meal rather than something you can find if you look hard enough. When Walmart and Costco, for example, became two of the nation’s biggest purveyors of organic produce, they sent a signal to thousands of farmers that there would be a large market for their produce.

But McDonald’s can’t really change and still be McDonald’s. In the United States today, you can sell meals for a dollar or you can sell nutritious meals. Doing both on a large scale is not possible. Besides, millions of Americans rely on the kind of cheap food they get at chain restaurants. It may not meet a nutritional ideal, but they often have no choice.

Late this summer, the Cleveland Clinic removed McDonald’s from its food court. “We want to demonstrate that we can walk the talk by being a healthier organization,” the hospital spokeswoman, Eileen Sheil, told the Plain Dealer. The decision was part of a much broader wellness campaign, and many people congratulated the clinic on its commitment to health. But comments poured into the newspaper, some angry, some distressed. “It is so expensive for family members staying with their loved ones in the hospital,’’ one person wrote. “McDonald’s was one place to get food inexpensively. Is the Clinic going to come up with a value meal to replace them? And are they going to keep the cafeteria open late to replace McDonald’s late service?”

The first time I ate at Lyfe Kitchen, I had a Quinoa Crunch Bowl, with avocado, arugula, and edamame hummus. The dish was richly flavorful and, for $8.99, a bargain. Gail Taggart, one of the owners of the Chicago restaurants, suggested I taste a vegan chocolate-chip cookie. I don’t like chocolate chips or see the point of vegan cookies, but she insisted. That cookie was the best hundred and fifty-six calories I consumed that week. I had no idea you could make tasty cookies without butter or eggs.

Taggart told me that for the company to prosper it has to remain nutritionally above reproach. Many of the restaurants that benefit from changing attitudes about food and health, however, fail to meet that standard. There isn’t a single heart-healthy item on the Shake Shack menu. Chipotle, with nineteen hundred locations, is the most successful of the new chains. The company has admirable goals, but, more often than not, meals from Chipotle are high in both saturated fat and calories, and often exceed the recommended daily allowance of sodium.

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“I once went to Chipotle,’’ Brian Wansink, the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Laboratory, told me. “It makes much of its slogan, ‘Food with Integrity,’ but my wife won’t let me go back. We take our three girls to Taco Bell and buy five tacos for the price that one of us could eat at Chipotle.” That’s one of the reasons that places like McDonald’s and Taco Bell still attract millions of regular customers. “The caloric values are not so different,” Wansink said. “Chipotle has a health halo”—a term Wansink and a colleague coined several years ago to describe the general aura of eating at places that advertise themselves as healthy. “They are organic and use the word sustainable a lot. That’s not a bad thing, but it doesn’t make the food healthier.”

Wansink has also served as the executive director of the U.S.D.A.’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. (In addition, he is a member of McDonald’s Global Advisory Council, which makes nutritional recommendations to the company’s leadership.) His book “Mindless Eating” demonstrated the gulf between what we think we are eating and what we actually eat. “We have these notions of sustainability and what will make us healthy or fat,’’ he said. “And I understand that. But the data rarely follow the prevailing view.’’

McDonald’s is a business. Lyfe Kitchen is an enlightened business. Sweetgreen, which was started in 2007 by three Georgetown graduates, aims to be a movement, selling a set of values in addition to its food. There are currently thirty-three Sweetgreen restaurants, and there are plans for many more. In nearly every city where the company has restaurants, it sponsors a program to educate fourth- and fifth-grade students about the basics of nutrition and the value of relying on seasonal produce. So far, Sweetgreen in Schools has reached four thousand students, most of whom come from lower-income families.

As a restaurant, Sweetgreen offers less variation than Lyfe Kitchen, but the food is nutritious and satisfying. There is no Chipotle-style assembly line, because the owners want to create a more intimate atmosphere. One server makes each customer’s salad. “We don’t have sandwiches, we don’t have breakfast, we don’t have coffee,’’ Nicolas Jammet, a co-founder, told me when I joined him and his colleagues for lunch recently at the Nolita restaurant. “We tried to do fewer things so we could stay focussed on what matters most.’’ Refreshingly in the world of strident foodies, Jammet and his colleagues manage to be ambitious without being sanctimonious. I remarked that it would be hard to consider their salads, which can be seven hundred calories or more, diet fare. “Our salads are meant to be whole meals,’’ he replied. “We want them to be satiating and fulfilling.’’

Sweetgreen’s ultimate goal is audacious but simple: to “raise a generation that understands the difference between cheap fast food and healthy fast food,’’ Nathaniel Ru, another co-founder, said. “Eventually, we bring the students into the restaurant for the last class. It’s very important to us because we think education is a huge piece of making this change.’’

Ru went on, “People need to understand what their food is, but we also want to make it enjoyable and fun. We want to bridge the gap between health and convenience and be the ones on a more mainstream level to do that. We don’t want a restaurant to be telling the world what they should eat. We are only going to expand where it makes sense and when the resources are in place to guarantee diners a good experience.”

That sounds like what the owner of any such chain would say. But Ru and his partners have invested heavily in these education programs. “They are changing the entire landscape of convenience dining,’’ Marion Nestle, the nutrition expert from N.Y.U., told me. “Both educationally and as a place to eat. I dare anyone to have dinner at one of those restaurants and then choose to go back to their Big Macs.”

Sweetgreen has raised nearly a hundred million dollars; Danny Meyer, the restaurateur and Shake Shack founder, was an early investor. He is an old friend of Jammet’s parents. (They ran La Caravelle, a famous New York restaurant that closed in 2004.) Another major investor is AOL’s Steve Case. Case has been particularly eager to marry the culinary experience to technology. Sweetgreen’s mobile apps are efficient: you can order on your phone, walk to the counter, wave the phone at the register, and be gone in a minute. The founders are also savvy at cultivating cool. They sponsor an annual music festival, and last year they joined with Kendrick Lamar to create a special “Beets Don’t Kale My Vibe” salad. Ten per cent of the profits from that salad are donated to FoodCorps, which educates children about agriculture and nutrition.

“Is it cold in here or is it just the Ice Age?”February 7, 2005Buy the print »

When Sweetgreen enters a new territory, the team seeks out farmers before finding a landlord. The arrangement is essential: the menu varies every few months depending on the city, the season, and the farmers. Meals at Sweetgreen usually cost between ten and twelve dollars, and a customer can be in and out in twenty minutes.

Like other fast casual chains, Sweetgreen can grow only if the farm system it relies on grows, too. In many parts of the country, that shift is already under way. The menus of expensive restaurants increasingly feature local ingredients. Farmers’ markets, once a rarity, have become a routine place to shop for food, including items like chard and Brussels sprouts, which until recently were considered more laughable than edible.

Nonetheless, fatty, salty meals remain far cheaper to produce, distribute, and buy than healthier alternatives. For that to change, America’s agricultural priorities will need to fall in line with its health priorities. “It is hard to strike a balance where everyone is winning,’’ Jammet said. “So that we make enough money, our customers don’t pay too much, we are able to pay our employees and the farmers a reasonable wage.”

When I asked if they could see themselves in thousands of locations one day, the ambivalence in their eyes was obvious. “At the end of the day, we’re happy when people eat here and come back as often as they want,’’ Ru said. “But they’re not going to eat here twenty-one times a week. We just want to make sure that this food appeals to them, whether they eat it here, at home, or at another place. All they need to do is think about it, and we have won.” ♦

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