McDonald’s isn’t so happy about what San Francisco is doing to its Happy Meals.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors banned most forms of the McDonald’s classic Happy Meal on Tuesday as part of a measure that prevents fast-food restaurants from offering toys with kid’s meals if they do not meet certain nutritional standards. Because the measure was approved by an 8-3 vote — a veto-proof margin — the ordinance will pass, preventing Mayor Gavin Newsom from vetoing the law as he indicated he would.
It’s an interesting law that attempts to stem the tide of childhood obesity, rates of which have tripled throughout the past 30 years. In the world’s most predictable reaction, McDonald’s wasn’t exactly jumping for joy.
“We are extremely disappointed with this decision,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Dayna Proud said in a statement. “It’s not what our customers want, nor is it something they asked for.”
The statement also tried to highlight the nutritional side of McDonald’s food.
“Any fair and objective review of our menu and the actions we’ve taken will demonstrate we’ve added multiple options for parents to choose. This includes Apple Dippers … low-fat one-percent milk, 100 percent apple juice and Chicken McNuggets made with white meat,” the statement continued.
In any case, under San Francisco’s new law, McDonald’s and other similar restaurants will have until December 2011 to modify and boost nutrition in their kid’s meals if they wish to offer toys with the food. The law has many specific guidelines, including making sure that foods have a total caloric value of less than 600 calories and a sodium restriction of 640 milligrams.
It’s probably one of the smartest laws in recent memory.
But others might be horrified to find out about this. The government, they might cry, is trying to control everything. It might be a tad depressing to see the Happy Meals of our childhood disappearing, fries and all. And the measure might seem like it’s overstepping its legal boundaries.
After all, it’s up to the parents, no?
Yes, it’s true that McDonald’s and many other fast-food establishments have started to offer healthier options in recent years. And yes, it is ultimately up to the parents to figure out what diet is best for their child. But in the big picture, this measure might be an important step toward changing not only waistlines but the way kids think about food.
It’s pretty easy for a parent to say that they can control their child’s diet. After all, they are the parent: they order and pay for the food.
But in reality, it really can’t be so simple to deal with a kid who wants french fries instead of apple slices. Watching their disappointed son or daughter pout and fidget, perhaps on the verge of throwing a tantrum or just plain being bummed out, it can become easy for a parent to think, “Hey, maybe french fries just this time will be OK.”
And right there, the kid has gotten what he wanted: burger, french fries, toy. So from that moment on, it’s possible that the child has subconsciously concluded, “Wait, I can have my toy, and eat fries too.”
It’s not just fries, either. According to a new study done by Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, only 12 combinations of choices from 12 different fast-food chains met nutritional guidelines for preschool-aged children.
Surprising stat? It’s 12 out of more than 3,000 kids meal combinations, meaning there have been a lot of ways for kids to eat unhealthy but still get the toy.
How do you prevent this scenario from playing out? Take the pressure away from the parent and only create childhood correlations between healthy combinations and those oh-so-fun toys.
Opponents of the measure might counter that concerned parents should just not take their kids to get unhealthy meals and leave some freedom for everyone else. Again, sounds simple, until you get down to the nuts and bolts of it.
Parents aren’t just taking their kids to eat fast food — it’s the kids that are asking. The aforementioned Yale study found that 40 percent of children between the ages of two and 11 ask to go to McDonald’s every week.
Where are these tiny toddlers getting the idea that they should be eating fast food? Could it possibly be the $4.2 billion that the study says the fast-food industry spent on advertising last year?
At the risk of sounding a bit Orwellian, it seems kids are prone to a little bit of brainwashing: A 2007 study by Stanford University found that kids prefer food from McDonald’s packaging to be tastier than the same food from plain packaging.
“Children under the age of seven or eight really do not have the ability to understand the persuasive intent of advertising and marketing,” said Dr. Thomas Robinson, an associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford’s School of Medicine.
With Happy Meals, this “marketing” means one thing: serving up food with the always-desired toy. It’s important to recognize how much of an effect childhood eating patterns have in the long-term, creating happy connotations with nutritionally dubious meals. And it’s admirable that a city is willing to step up and force a fundamental change in how kids are eating.
It might not be the most subtle method, but this clash of law and industry will likely amount to positive changes. Sometimes, immediate happiness has to take a temporary backseat to lifelong health.
Eddie Kim is a sophomore majoring in print journalism. His column, “Culture Clash,” runs Thursdays.