Banning the Happy Meal
Governments take child nutrition into their own hands.
Being a parent means making decisions for your children -- about what to wear, when to sleep, and what and how much to eat. But with nearly one in three children obese, questions have been raised about the choices parents make when it comes to their children’s eating habits, and some local governments have started taking matters into their own hands.
In Arizona, the Flagstaff Unified School District is launching a controversial program in which students are weighed and measured, and then overweight (and underweight) students are sent home with a note for their parents. In addition to detailing the child’s height, weight and body mass index, the note includes graphs showing healthy weights for a given age and height, and recommendations for good nutrition, exercise and a visit to a physician. Back in 2003, a similar program in Arkansas required all schools to include obesity grades on report cards. It was highly unpopular; moreover, it failed to affect the obesity rate.
Banning toys passed out with children’s meals at fast food restaurants, however, may be the most controversial move yet involving parents and their children’s eating habits. In April 2010, Santa Clara County, Calif., passed legislation -- reportedly the first in the nation -- prohibiting toys in children’s meals that have more than 485 calories, more than 35 percent of calories from fat, or single-item orders of more than 200 calories.
While other fast food chains have meals targeted toward children -- Burger King, Jack in the Box and Wendy’s all have their own version of a “kid’s meal” -- McDonald’s Happy Meal is the best known, making it the prime target of such bans and other legal actions. In June 2010, the Washington, D.C., Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) served McDonald’s a letter of intent to sue in California court “if the fast food chain continues to use toys to promote Happy Meals.” The reason? Toys entice kids into eating unhealthy foods, and parents, it seems, can’t say no when their children beg for that Happy Meal -- and its precious toy.
“McDonald’s is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to children,” said CSPI Litigation Director Stephen Gardner in a press release. “McDonald’s use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children’s developmental immaturity -- all this to induce children to prefer foods that may harm their health. It’s a creepy and predatory practice that warrants an injunction.”
Back on the West Coast, San Francisco just finished a battle with legislation similar to that of Santa Clara County. On Nov. 2, it became the first city to pass a law prohibiting fast food restaurants from giving away toys with children’s meals that don’t meet nutritional guidelines. Ten days after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance, Mayor Gavin Newsom vetoed the legislation, saying the law intrudes upon “parental responsibilities and private choices.”
The board, however, overrode the veto in an 8-3 vote on Nov. 23. The law will go into effect this December.
The California Restaurant Association says such meals -- and their fat and calorie content -- are nonissues for customers, while the National Restaurant Association’s Scott DeFife, executive vice president of policy and government affairs, called San Francisco’s decision to regulate kids’ meals “very disappointing.”
“Rather than focusing on real solutions to the problem of childhood obesity, the board chose to push forward an unpopular and misguided ordinance that will likely do nothing to help address this problem,” DeFife said in a statement. “Parents and guardians should be making the decisions about their family dining experiences.”
Advocates for these restrictions question parents’ track record on picking healthful food for their children. Perhaps the bans in cities like Santa Clara and San Francisco will push parents’ decision making in the right direction.