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Burger King loses foothold at Sick Kids

Dangerous trans fats are often found in fast food.

Gene Puskar/AP

The Burger King restaurant inside Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children served its last Whopper this weekend, closing down after the hospital chose not to renew its lease.

The decision followed a bidding process for the food court slot at Canada's largest pediatric hospital that was meant to offer healthier food options to visitors and staff. It reflects rising consciousness in health institutions of the need to send consistent messages about nutrition and diet at a time when obesity rates across North America are at an all-time high.

Doctors such as Sick Kids pediatrician Vishal Avinashi have become more vocal about this issue. Dr. Avinashi started a Facebook group a few weeks ago called "Burger King should NOT be allowed to operate at Sick Kids hospital", which has since gathered 258 members. While the changes that pushed Burger King out were already well under way, the group drew comments from physicians and other medical professionals.

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"I'd thought about doing it for a while," says Dr. Avinashi, "because the gut reaction among those in our workplace when they saw the Burger King was, 'I can't believe this place exists here.' "

As of Saturday at 4:30 p.m., it still existed, as did the sign in the hallway guiding visitors one way toward orthopedics and the other toward Burger King. Half an hour before it was scheduled to close, there was a lineup of four people at the counter and - aside from two of the meal combos being unavailable - it was business as usual. Workers will begin to dismantle all of the deep-fryers and milkshake machines over the course of the next two weeks.

Whatever some physicians may have thought of the burger chain's menu, the hospital has benefited from the association. According to a statement from Cameron Loopstra, senior marketing manager at Burger King Canada, the chain has raised more than $2.5-million for the Sick Kids Foundation since 1999, mostly through initiatives such as the Toonie Bear campaign.

Mr. Loopstra says Burger King will continue to raise money for the hospital throughout this year.

Stuart Howe, director of business services and development at Sick Kids, says that when he was hired last January, he reviewed the hospital's retail operations and surveyed staff to see what they wanted. Then, in June, an open bidding process began for a handful of leases; Burger King submitted a proposal, but didn't win.

"We found there was a very clear push for healthier options," says Mr. Howe. "Anecdotally, I do believe more and more hospitals are reevaluating their restaurant franchises, as they should. It's becoming an expectation."

It's not as if all traces of sugar or fat will be eradicated from Sick Kids -Pizza Pizza and Subway still operate in the main foyer.

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Dr. Avinashi says it comes down to finding a balance, providing options, and allowing debate over how much focus should be placed on nutrition.

"It's funny," says Dr. Avinashi, "because we have a Shopper's Drug Mart at SickKids too, and they make this whole effort not to sell any formula because they want to encourage breastfeeding, and yet they still sell pop, Kool-Aid and chocolate bars. So are they concerned about a baby's nutrition but not that of an older child, or a mother?

"I don't want to tell them to stop selling gummy bears," he adds, "but I do think we need to be more consistent in how we advocate better nutrition."

But as Dr. Avinashi admits, there's a line between encouraging good food habits and enforcing them. Sometimes even doctors want cheeseburgers.

"I've seen doctors remove their name tags when they're in line, ordering super-value meals," says Dr. Avinashi. "There's obviously some guilt associated with that."

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