While the rest of San Francisco was preoccupied with the just-ended election campaign, the city’s Board of Supervisors agreed more quietly on a measure intended to help curb childhood obesity: banning the toy giveaways that are so often a part of fast food fare like Happy Meals.
Under the legislation, a packaged fast food meal aimed at children would have to meet guidelines for sodium, fat and calorie content — and contain at least half a cup of fruit or three-quarters of a cup of vegetables. Only if it does that, could it — like its intended consumers — qualify for a toy. The criteria are very specific: Anything over 600 calories total would be disqualified, as would a meal with more than 640 mg of sodium or more than 35% of its calories from fat (with the exception of egg, nut or low-fat cheese sources).
“We’re part of a movement that is moving forward an agenda of food justice,” the bill’s main sponsor, Supervisor Eric Mar told the Los Angeles Times. “From San Francisco to New York City, the epidemic of childhood obesity in this country is making our kids sick, particularly kids from low-income neighborhoods, at an alarming rate. It’s a survival issue and a day-to-day issue.”
Not everyone is a fan of the idea. Mayor Gavin Newsom vowed to veto the measure on economic grounds, but the 8-to-3 vote in favor makes it veto-proof. McDonald’s franchise owners worry that families will simply drive outside of city limits to get their Happy Meal fix, rather than opt for the healthier option closer to home.
“We are extremely disappointed with today’s decision. It’s not what our customers want, nor is it something they asked for,” McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud said in a statement.”Getting a toy with a kid’s meal is just one part of a fun, family experience at McDonald’s,” Proud said.
Fifteen percent of American children are overweight or obese — which puts them at risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In some states, the childhood obesity rate is over 30 percent.The Center for Science in the Public Interest this summer threatened to sue McDonald’s if it did not stop using Happy Meal toys to lure children into its restaurants. A lawyer for that group said it is on track to file the lawsuit in the next several weeks.
McDonald’s debuted the Happy Meal in the United States in 1979 with toys like the “McDoodler” stencil and the “McWrist” wallet. Modern offerings have included themed items from popular films like “Shrek” or sought-after toys like Transformers, Legos or miniature Ty Beanie Babies.
In 2006, the latest year for which data is available, fast-food companies led by McDonald’s spent more than $520 million on advertising and toys to promote meals for children, according to a U.S. Federal Trade Commission report.
When the efforts of other food and beverage companies were included, promotional spending aimed at children topped $1.6 billion.