SAN FRANCISCO — Lost in the nationwide electoral tumult Tuesday was another important vote, this one by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which took on one of the great (tasting) issues of our day: the Happy Meal.Clearly, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors doesn't know what it is like for a young Jolly child to be force-fed the message that his love of french fries is disordered and must be reshaped to fit society's demands. And they're willing to punish him for that disordered love by denying him free toys! How...bigoted of them.
The board, whose political leanings can sometimes fall somewhere between Democrat and Dadaist, passed a ban on restaurant toy giveaways unless the aforementioned meals meet certain healthy nutritional standards for calories, sodium and fat.
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 called the bill misguided. “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.”
All kidding aside, I was struck by the fact that Supervisor Eric Mar was moved to sponsor this bill when he became horrified by his daughter's collection of the free meal toys. Unless Mar's daughter was riding her tricycle through the drive-thru and ordering Happy Meals unknown to her parents, chances are that an adult was colluding in the purchases of said meals. Chances are also that the adult was a parent, and that the adult wasn't motivated to make the purchase at all by the presence of a bit of cheap foreign-made plastic advertising some cartoon or movie. So why does Mar think that banning the inclusion of the toys will suddenly motivate more responsible child-food-selection behavior from parents...such as himself? And if Mar's wife was the one making the purchases--well, she is, according to Mar's bio, a public school teacher, so is her decision making process really going to depend on whether a free toy is included with her daughter's meal?
But this is the typical liberal way of solving a problem: deny the role of personal responsibility, insist that the trouble is really society's fault, and then punish those least able to effect any change in the matter--in this case, the children who will be disappointed by the lack of a toy with their meal, since they've become used to getting one.
Now, we could talk about whether Happy Meal toys are a good idea, or not; we could talk about the materialism and consumerism involved; we could talk about the exploitation of third-world workers who toil away for pennies a day to produce worthless items to be given away free to the children of rich nations; we could talk about whether the cumulative piles of restaurant toys are wasteful and difficult to dispose of without negatively impacting the environment; we could admit that on long road trips the toys go from being "scourge of parents' existence" to "saviors of parental sanity;" we could focus on the marketing of movies that aren't even appropriate for young children through this venue; and we could probably find dozens of other, related issues to be brought up in a vigorous pro/con Happy Meal toy debate. All of these are legitimate points of discussion.
But do Happy Meal toys make kids fat? Well, let's see--did kids eat McDonald's hamburgers or cheeseburgers, with a small french fry and a small drink, long before Bob Bernstein had his sales-increasing idea? Um, yes (I remember doing exactly that as a child). So unless you believe that there's some magical, mystical way that the same food increases its obesity-causing properties simply by the inclusion of a cheap toy, the removal of the toy will have little effect on the number of children who still regularly consume a cheeseburger with fries and a soft drink.
Do we have an epidemic of obesity among young children in America? It would seem so. But I have a feeling that this has very little to do with Happy Meal toys, and a whole lot to do with other matters, including the decline in unscheduled outdoor play time for children, the rise of sedentary entertainment possibilities, the absence of mothers from the home (since it takes a great deal of constant, focused discipline to prepare a home-cooked meal every day if you're not actually at home, but working outside of it, every day), and the fact that fresh fruits and vegetables cost ten times more than junk food, according to this article.
The reasons for American obesity are both puzzlingly complex and frighteningly simple. The complex part has to do with our ongoing subsidies of things like corn and sugar, ingredients that fill junk foods, processed foods, calorie-laden beverages, and a whole lot of other worthless calorie options (and the resulting cheap price and wide availability of such foods). The frighteningly simple part, though, has to do with each individual's ability to make good food choices, to reform bad habits, and to address the emotional and other mental aspects of overeating.
And when it comes to children, there is one sure-fire weapon against obesity: the word "No." Because parents are the ones who are in charge of what our children eat, and though it may be a struggle to get them to eat good, healthy food sometimes, that struggle is worth the results.
But it's not a struggle some government body can make on our behalf. It's not a struggle that has to take away every fun aspect of childhood, either. The reason children need parents is because they need responsible grown-ups willing to find the proper balance between the occasional Happy Meal and the regular, healthy meals cooked at home. It takes a pretty crazy sort of government to think that banning Happy Meal toys is a proper act of in loco parentis.