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Hands off our Happy Meals

While Californians are voting Tuesday for governor and senator, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors will vote on Happy Meals. Under consideration: A ban on the little promotional toys that are often offered with children’s meals at fast-food restaurants, unless those meals meet certain nutritional requirements and offer prescribed amounts of fruits and vegetables.

This is a particularly ill-considered weapon in the war against childhood obesity because it removes a choice that rightly belongs to parents: whether to buy their children an admittedly less-than-optimally-nutritious meal that is enhanced in children’s eyes by a toy. Most parents don’t buy these meals as daily dinner fare, and those that do, arguably, wouldn’t be careful with their child’s nutritional welfare in any setting.

A better way to tackle this issue is by educating both parents and children. In fact, societal awareness of childhood obesity — and the resulting pressure that consumers have put on fast-food restaurants — have already led McDonald’s to offer milk and apple slices as an option to replace fries and soda.

Eateries seek to lure customers in all sorts of ways: Cheap prices, free salty snacks to go with those happy hour drinks, playgrounds for the kids. Nonstop TV has migrated from sports bars to many a sit-down restaurant. Whether we’re being enticed to come in for junk food, booze, tofu or coffee, the decision to take up the offer belongs to the customer, not the government.

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The vote on the toy ban was put off until Tuesday after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is running for lieutenant governor, threatened to veto the measure. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors passed a similar toy ban earlier this year.

Cities, and the country as a whole, are right to be concerned about childhood obesity. Good for them for grappling with ways to combat it. But in the absence of solid, science-based information on how best to do it, they seem to be flailing, taking random potshots against one aspect of the American diet or another. In New York, there’s recently been an effort to ban the purchase of soda with food stamps; in San Francisco, it’s little toys that are threatened.

This is where the federal government could helpfully step in, not by regulating what people choose to eat but by convening a panel of experts in this field to develop an array of effective proposals that cities could consider, while avoiding options that trample on the rights of individual consumers. Meanwhile, cities are flying blind. Maybe San Francisco could more effectively encourage childhood slimness by setting up tempting new recreational offerings at its parks, and encouraging kids to exercise, than by micromanaging the ingredients of Happy Meals.


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