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Doing the Right Thing

The “Happy Meal” debate is currently underway nationwide, sparked by ordinances enacted in Santa Clara County, CA, (April 2010) and in San Francisco (December 2010), which limit toy giveaways in children’s meals that have excessive calories, sodium, and fat.

The measures—aimed at such mega fast-service chains as McDonald’s and Burger King, which have long targeted young children with marketing campaigns—do not ban giveaways outright, but instead mandate that fruits and vegetables be included in promotional meals, and limit total meal calories to 600 and single items within the meal to 200.

The anti-giveaways movement has caught fire. In February, California legislators opened debate on “setting healthier standards for children’s meals that are accompanied by toys.” In April, the New York City Council introduced a bill that would ban giveaways in children’s meals that don’t meet nutritional guidelines. Similar measures are now under consideration in at least a dozen other states and many municipalities.

Dr. Carmen Rita Nevarez, vice president of the Public Health Institute, recently framed the debate by saying, “We see [child obesity] not only in our citys’ waiting rooms and classrooms, but in our souring health care bills. It’s time for fast food promotions to stop contravening our efforts to change this reality.”

The fast-service chains are vehemently opposed to any legislation restricting the meals they serve. McDonald’s, for example, had several corporate heavyweights on hand for the San Francisco ordinance debate. The company argued, unsuccessfully, that there is no evidence linking fast-food toys to weight gain, and that Happy Meals aren’t even that fattening. McDonald’s position, as stated by CEO Jim Skinner, is that parents have the right and responsibility to decide what’s best for their children (this from a company that spends over $500 million per year marketing directly to kids).
One third of America’s children are now considered obese, compared to half that number 20 years ago. In the same period, the incidence of early on-set diabetes in teenagers has more than tripled. Pediatricians now routinely scan teenagers for high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, and cardiovascular disease. Clearly, “letting the parent decide” is not the solution to the growing childhood obesity and health crisis.

The fast-service food industry has its allies. Following the San Francisco vote, National Restaurant Association President Dawn Sweeney pledged “to oppose these bands,” and adopted McDonald’s position that “parents should decide what their children consume.” In separate statements, Joe Condie, president of the California Restaurant Association, and Andrew Rigie, vice-president of the New York Restaurant Association, agreed. The restaurant associations of Arizona and Florida lobbied their state legislatures to enact measures that prevent local governments from banning toy giveaways with children’s fast-service meals.

In general, the restaurant and hospitality industries have supported the healthier, sustainable, eco-friendly, and socially conscious food movements. It’s time for the fast-service chains to catch up. It’s the right thing to do.

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