San Francisco law leaves Happy Meal makers morose

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.

6 replies
  1. DamonThePhilanderer
    DamonThePhilanderer says:

    Just remove the toys from the Happy Meals & sell them separately. You can already buy the toy without buying the meal now. Easy peasy nice & cheesy.

  2. Counseling SF
    Counseling SF says:

    I think it is the parents responsibility to tell their children no you cannot/should not eat that. If they want to take the initiative themselves to make their food healthier that is a business decision for them to make. My family very very rarely eats a McDonald’s, I’d say less than 5 times per year. If their for were healthier we would eat there more, but thats a decision they should be able to make themselves. Parents make that decision, we don’t give our kids alcoholic beverages because they come with a cute straw, we say no you can’t have that, it’s bad for you.

  3. Joy
    Joy says:

    Zach, you are right. As to this law… This has nothing to do with obese kids. It’s a put on. There are so many things that make our kids obese: Reading; Homework (4 hours of homework a night = less exercise) and portion control, just to name a few. Is banning homework next? Are you going to now cut down the number of books my kid can take out of the library so she doesn’t read as much to perhaps make her go out and play? Of course not. Libraries aren’t big giant “Evil” corporations you are trying to tie the hands of. This is overboard, plain and simple. It’s also exclusionary, and don’t we teach our children to NOT exclude? Not every child is obese and it’s not my or my daughter’s fault if some parent wants to take their kids to McDonald’s everyday. Why should she be denied a toy because the once in a blue moon I take her to McDonald’s she decides she’d rather have fries and not apple dippers? I am not for laws that take freedoms away. Is this what our Veteran’s fought for? Is this what service men and women died in battle for? To take toys away from children? Apparently in San Francisco’s twisted mind, picking on someone who isn’t their size – and taking away the rights of healthy children (and parents) – is apparently what they did fight and die fought for. Whatever San Francisco. The reality is, it’s called “personal responsibility”. Banning toys does not teach parents going there all the time personal responsibility. It just punishes the little ones. Especially MOST children who ARE healthy and do go there. Whether or not my daughter gets a Happy Meal toy – or even eats a Happy Meal – is not for YOU to dictate to my healthy child San Francisco, and every day I am more and more glad I don’t live in a city with such a twisted perception of freedom and who obviously doesn’t understand the term “personal responsibility”. Which is what these parents need, not to be forced to eat the way The Man wants them to eat, or else you’ll be punished!

  4. Johnny
    Johnny says:

    @Zach What you say is true to a point. However, oh so very often the parents have to tell their children that they cannot play with their toy until they finish their food. That’s telling me that the converse is also so very true, that kids don’t care what food they get, as long as it comes with a toy.

    As for the food part of it, it’s addicting. Maybe not in a hard drugs kinda way, but certainly in a cravings sorta way. I’ll go into Wendy’s, my preferred fast food chain, and order something a few notches healthier. If I go with someone else, and they order fries though, immediately I start salivating like one of Pavlov’s dogs. My body has been conditioned to want those tasty, salt covered, deep fried, carb sticks. Same goes for drinking water with my food instead of getting a soda. The food just doesn’t taste right unless I’m sucking down carbonated corn syrup.

    Can I choose to consciously eat better? Sure. Can a child? Not really. In the home, at those early ages, getting children into healthy eating habits, can completely curb a sweet tooth later on. Personally, I was quite the sugar tooth, but, for the most part, I have grown out of it. But still, “Me never met a cookie me didn’t like”.

    Bad eating habits are one thing. Bad exercise habits, are another. With so many parents feeling overwhelmed and simply medicating their children into a zombie-like state of submission or planting them in front of a television to act as their babysitter, it’s no wonder that obesity rates are on the rise. Bad food and bad exercise all stemming from bad parenting. It’s bad enough that children are out of the house forty hours a week with school to pick up bad habits form their peers, but to raise your children to grow up to be fat slobs just like mommy and daddy is inexcusable.

    Back to the main point of the article, despite the law that these highly paid government officials have passed, it won’t stop anything. As a customer, one can purchase a toy from a fast food chain without purchasing the meal, usually for only a dollar. So mom and dad merely have to buy a small fry, some nuggets or a burger, a small soda, and a toy, and oh, look, it’s a Happy Meal!

  5. Zach
    Zach says:

    Great article, with great research, but i must say….

    This toy-ban was passed under the guise of childhood obesity legislation. Our kids will still be obese, just without toys. This sheepish legislation will do little to curb childhood obesity, it will only force fast-food chains to invent new marketing techniques. What we need are strict regulations regarding food, not rules about toys that accompany food.

    It’s not the kids who choose to eat fast-food, it’s the parents, and they don’t care about the toys. Parents choose fast-food because it’s fast, cheap, and convenient, not because their child gets a plastic choking-hazard souvenir. Honestly, the kids couldn’t care less. That smile on their face is not from the toy, it’s from the sugar in their food. Take away the toy and they still smile. Get it? IT’S THE FOOD.

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