Should the Happy Meal be illegal? The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance that prevents fast-food restaurants from giving away toys with meals designed for kids. The typical Happy Meal consisting of a cheeseburger, fries, and a soda packs 640 calories which is more than half the recommended daily allowance for 4- to 8-year-olds. The new law, passed following an override of Mayor Gavin Newsom's veto, goes into effect in December 2011. It would allow toys if the meals have reduced calories, salt, fat, and sugar and also include vegetables (French fries and ketchup don't count).
The Happy Meal is also being attacked in the courts. A Sacramento mother, supported by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, filed a class action lawsuit to prevent McDonald's from using "...the bait of toys to exploit children's developmental immaturity and subvert parental authority..."
McDonald's argues that it offers Apple Dippers (apples with low-fat caramel) as a healthy alternative to the fries, although they're rarely chosen. The company decries the "food police" and is strongly supported by the California Restaurant Association. They will oppose any attempts to restrict their offerings to kids. Mayor Newsom suggests that the ordinance, although well intentioned, goes too far since parents, not the government, should be responsible for their kids' diets. So who's right? How far should government go in intervening in children's food choices?
On one hand we accept governments' interference in personal decisions affecting health. Most of us agree with policies intended to make smoking more expensive and difficult. We're willing to accept this intrusion so that fewer kids will start to smoke, suffer the health consequences, and possibly die of lung cancer. Likewise, I haven't heard of any organized protests or legal challenges to state laws that require us to buckle our seat belts or put toddlers in special protective seats. Using a seat belt could be viewed as a personal choice. You could argue, "If I'm in an accident I can be injured if I want to; it doesn't affect anyone else so the government should butt out!" If we accept governmental intrusion in other personal health-related decisions, why is taking the toys out of Happy Meals so controversial?
Perhaps we are especially sensitive to any implication that we are less than adequate parents. Feeding our child is an essential part of our responsibility as a loving parent. The idea that a government needs to intervene may imply that we are not good parents. Even if you hate seat belts or love cigarettes, the laws limiting these behaviors may be frustrating or annoying but they don't threaten our view of ourselves.
It might help parents to recognize that the proposed ordinance is not interfering with their right to buy their child a Happy Meal. When the law takes effect the only change is that there won't be a toy in the box. In some ways this could actually increase a parent's ability to choose food for their child. Without the toy there's less likelihood that the child will ask, whine, or demand the Happy Meal so Mom or Dad can decide without the emotional complication of an upset child.
The frequency of childhood obesity has tripled since the 1970's. Currently one out of three kids is overweight or obese yet research shows that many parents do not recognize that their children are too heavy. Currently it costs about $150 billion per year to treat obesity-related medical conditions and it will only get worse unless the juvenile obesity epidemic can be reversed. Taking the toys out of Happy Meal boxes should make it a little easier for parents to encourage healthy eating habits for their children.