Ever since introducing packages of apple slices as part of its kid-sized Happy Meals 12 years ago, the company has served more than 2 billion packages with its kids’ meals.
That’s a whole lot of wholesome crunchy munching going on.
The introduction of apple slices helped pave the way for McDonald’s continuing evolution to improve its kids’ meals and offer more wholesome options for its youngest customers. But the impact has been larger than that. As the first national restaurant chain to successfully offer pre-sliced apple packages on a national scale, suppliers responded by increasing capacity to make them – which helped make it easier for other retailers and schools to offer the convenient apple packages.
According to Mark Seetin, Director of Regulatory and Industry Affairs for the U.S. Apple Association, McDonald’s decision to introduce apple slices in Happy Meals had a major impact in the rise in the consumption of U.S.-grown apples.
“Our hard working apple growers were thrilled with McDonald’s industry-leading decision in 2004 to add healthy and nutritious fresh-cut apples to their menu,” says Seetin. “According to USDA statistics, from 1.2 million bushels of apples used for slices in 2004 — the equivalent of 132 million fresh apples — consumption of fresh cut apples has increased by a whopping 355% to 4.6 million bushels — equivalent to over 506 million apples — in 2015. And the trend is still continuing.”
From 2009 to 2013, overall apple sales went up by 72%, driven in part because of the widening availability of fresh-cut apple packs. Today, Seetin says, nearly 1 in 20 apples in the U.S. is consumed in the form of fresh-cut slices.
McDonald’s Happy Meal changes are aimed at making it easier for parents to ensure that their children are getting wholesome options. That effort is supported by the company’s partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which was founded by the American Heart Association and the Clinton Foundation. Its goal: To increase access to fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy and to help families make informed choices.
“Access to fruits and vegetables is critical for children’s health—according to the Centers for Disease Control, 60 percent of children do not eat enough fruit to meet daily recommendations,” said Anne Ferree, Vice President, Strategic Alliances for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. “We look forward to working closely with McDonald’s to continue to find innovative ways to introduce new fruits and vegetables to their menu and leverage their incredible marketing power to positively impact children’s diets.”
Sarah Schlukebir, the Chief Marketing Officer behind the family-run Peterson Farms in Shelby, Michigan, has been part of McDonald’s journey to include apple slices in the Happy Meal from the beginning. “Back in the early 2000s when McDonald’s was working on the concept, there was a great increase in interest for convenience. As the first national restaurant chain to offer packs of apple slices as an option in Happy Meals, McDonald’s definitely increased the presence and familiarity of the product.”
Peterson Farms was one of the original suppliers of pre-cut apple slices for McDonald’s in 2004, along with Ready Pac Foods, Fresh Express, and Tree Top. Since then, all have seen an expanded customer base for the product, including with retailers, other restaurants and K-12 schools.
As a mother, Schlukebir has seen how her own children became more accustomed to eating the pre-cut slices. “It took a while for schools to catch on. It had to become a core item. But after middle schoolers and high schoolers became familiar with the apples in their Happy Meals, it has become a standard. It’s hard for my kids not to remember when there were baby carrots. Now apple slices are on the same journey as the carrots. The surge will continue.”
Sliced Apples: An Unexpected Ally for Schools
Carol Chong, the national school nutrition advisor for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, witnessed first-hand what happened when whole apples were replaced by fresh-cut packages when she worked as the director of food and menu management for Miami Dade Public Schools.
“When I was with the school district, we saw apple consumption quadruple when we went from whole apples to sliced apples over five years ago,” she says. “When the apples came pre-packaged, it was like the best thing since sliced bread.”
She sees a direct correlation between McDonald’s featuring the sliced apples and the product increasing in popularity in schools. “It validates the quality of the meal for students. They see the same brand and think, ‘Oh, I had that in my Happy Meal.’ It’s a positive association. Probably 100% of schools now serve them. It has become the norm.”