Misdirected CA County Bans Happy Meals

A California county has voted to ban fast-food restaurants from giving out toys with certain child-sized meals. Santa Clara county, located near San Francisco, wants to remove the positive association children have with junk food. Toys are only allowed if the food meets set nutritional requirements. The San Jose Mercury News has more:

The law prohibits restaurants in unincorporated parts of the county from giving away goodies unless the meals meet certain nutritional guidelines. More and more in recent years, fast-food critics say restaurants have encouraged families to make unhealthy choices by offering Iron Man Cyclone Spinning Robot Drones and Barbie Mermaid dolls with their kids’ meals.

“This ordinance breaks the link between unhealthy food and prizes,” said Supervisor Ken Yeager, who sponsored the initiative. Yeager said it is unfair to parents and children to use toys to capture the tastes of children when they’re young and “to get them hooked on eating high-sugar, high-fat foods early in life.”

Under the ordinance, restaurants would not be able to offer toys for kids’ meals that exceed certain nutritional standards — more than 485 total calories, for instance, or more than 600 milligrams of sodium. That means, at Wendy’s, four chicken nuggets, mandarin oranges and low-fat milk would get a toy. But the crispy chicken sandwich, fries and chocolate milk would not.

Although the county ranks as one of the healthiest in the nation, one in four seventh-, ninth- and 11th-graders in the county are either overweight or obese, and one in three low-income children between the ages of 2 and 5 fall into the same two categories. Latinos are disproportionately affected by the epidemic.

But when Amalia Chamorro, speaking on behalf of the state restaurant association, turned to ask how many of the audience — many of them Latino and several of them who work in the fast-food industry — would oppose the ordinance, the majority rose their hands.

If the county board passes its version of the ban, the county will impose a minimum $250 fine on violators.

This is the same part of the country that buys 100 Domino’s pizzas for schoolchildren every Friday (after a failed $4 million investment in a Pizzamatic machine).

Targeting kids’ toys sounds more like a publicity move than something that will actually be effective. Obese kids eat fast food anyway, not just for the toys. The best use of the toys is as a special, once-in-a-while treat for kids. Parents who use the meals that way probably don’t have obese kids, anyway.

By cutting off access to this particular tradition, the government isn’t targeting the meals or people it should be focusing on. That is, parents who enable their kids to eat food that makes them fat, all the time.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors did accomplish one thing, however. They got their name in the national news. They projected an image of their county as one that’s tough on obesity (despite the dubious efficacy of their new law). In other words, they got PR. In a world where politicians thrive of visibility and votes, this was a good political move.

Actually making a dent in childhood obesity requires different action. Michelle Obama’s idea to give grocery stores tax breaks to set up shop in areas where nutritious food is in low supply is one good idea. Her suggestion to increase the number of farmer’s markets is another. Other promising ideas, executed at the local level, have included the Oklahoma City mayor’s challenge that the city lose 1 million pounds (he himself lost 40), and one Kentucky town’s move to put all bike paths and trail maps online.

There are tons of good options for slimming down kids. Banning the longtime tradition of a toy in a meal isn’t one of them.

Written by Drea Knufken

Drea Knufken

Currently, I create and execute content- and PR strategies for clients, including thought leadership and messaging. I also ghostwrite and produce press releases, white papers, case studies and other collateral.