San Francisco takes the ‘happy’ out of “Happy Meal”

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors yesterday voted to crack down on Happy Meals.

But this doesn’t mean that San Francisco lawmakers will now be prying your McDonald’s Happy Meal toys out of your cold, dead hands. What it will do is keep the trinkets out of meals that don’t meet a set of nutritional standards. There is now a 600-calorie cap on such meals, with no single item containing more than 200 calories. The meal must include fruits and veggies, and there are limits on sodium and fat. The sugar content of the accompanying beverage is also restricted.


Happy Meals cracking down on childhood obesity? Jeff Chiu/AP


The bill, which passed 8 to 3, was sponsored by Supervisor Eric Mar, who had recounted how he had been horrified by his daughter’s collection of giveaway toys and envisioned the bill as a way to strike a blow against fatty, salty fast food. Mr. Mar said he hoped it would act as an incentive to fast-food companies to “provide better choices.”

McDonald’s, of course, called the bill deluded. “It’s not what our customers want,” said Danya Proud, a spokeswoman for the company, in a statement. “Nor is it something they asked for.”

It would probably be difficult to dig up actual, legitimate research on whether kids prefer the meals with free toys (though it’s very probable that parents have plenty of anecdotal data) or whether the kind of requirement included in the proposed legislation would increase purchases of more nutritious foods.

Still, Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity says that it’s very obvious that fast-food advertising aimed at kids “promotes the toys in a big way.” The  FTC’s 2008 report on marketing food to kids and teens estimated the cost of those toys at about $360 million in 2006. Those toys and other specialty items and prizes aimed at teens and kids represent the second-largest kid-targeted promotional category for fast-food restaurants, behind TV, the report said. So we can assume that the fast-food companies — which oppose SF’s proposed law, for the record — think the toys are a draw.

In essence, the notion behind this kind of law (Santa Clara County, Calif. already has one) is to “offer toys with the healthier options, which all the restaurants have anyway,” says Harris. “It’s a way to convince kids to try apples, juice and milk” instead of soda and fries, she says.

How about you, readers, do you think kids would ask for the meal without fries or soda if that was the only way to get the toy?

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