Oh No! They're Taking Away Our Happy Meals!

Last Updated Nov 10, 2010 7:19 PM EST

The other day a veto-proof majority of San Francisco's board of supervisors voted to ban MacDonald's Happy Meals. So reported hundreds of news stories and blogs around the Internet.

In fact, the ordinance doesn't specifically name MacDonald's. It prohibits all restaurants in the city from offering a free toy or prize with meals that exceed a set number of calories (600), sodium (650 mg) and fat levels (35% of total calories). All meals (except breakfast) must also contain a half cup of veggies and fruit.

Predictably, a tsunami-sized wave of criticism rolled in on San Francisco Bay. Andrew Breitbart, who runs the conservative blog BigGovernment.com, declared Eric Mar, author of the ordinance, "Nanny of the Week," by which he means, I guess, a person who prods you into good behavior (whether you like it or not). The NewsReal blog slapped a tragic headline on the story: "San Fran Nannies Steal Happy Meals from Children."

It does seem ridiculous that a city government would try to control children's eating habits. In any battle for good childhood nutrition, parents presumably are in charge. "Parents tell us it's their right and responsibility -- not the government's -- to make their own decisions and to choose what's right for their children," harrumphed a spokesman for MacDonald's which is obviously less than keen on the new ordinance. What's more, the Happy Meal is hardly the most offensive offering around. The hamburger in its Happy Meal has 300 calories. If a wise parent insists on choosing the more healthful Happy Meal options (1% low-fat milk instead of soda, and apple slice dipped in sugar-free caramel sauce instead of French fries), a kid could escape without packing more than 500 calories under his or her Garanimals. (In contrast, a slice of Costco pizza has 718 calories.)

I have decided, however, that the ordinance makes sense -- even though I have over the years ingested tons of MacDonald's fries, KFC, Dunkin' Donuts munchkins and other empty-calorie fare. But you have to look at the problem the supervisors face. For starters, San Francisco was ranked Number One (along with two other California cities -- Fremont and Oakland) for having the largest percentage of obese adults, according to Men's Health magazine. A 2007 California Health Interview Study found that 15% of adolescents between age 12 and 17 and 8% of children under 12 in the Bay Area were overweight for their age. In 2008, more than a quarter of the city's kids in grades 5, 7 and 9 had weights above the healthy range on a California assessment test.

Statistics cited in the ordinance show, moreover, that parents aid and abet kids' unhealthy fast-food habits. A Kaiser foundation poll had 40% of San Francisco parents saying that their kids ate at least one fast-food meal each day; 14% said that their kids did not eat a home cooked dinner on most nights. Eating out so much is bound to cause problems. According to the ordinance's preamble, "Children eat twice as many calories (770) when they eat a meal at a restaurant as they do when they eat at home (420)," and "an analysis of nutrient quality of children's meals served by restaurant chains found that only 3% met USDA criteria for meals served under the National Lunch program."

The toys, tickets, games and other stuff offered by restaurants provide a strong link between young kids and junk food. With dreams of Megamind figures dancing in their heads, kids will nag their parents ceaselessly to buy the Happy Meal that wins them the premium. Yes, parents should say 'no,' but do they? The answer is simply that many don't. In 2006, fast-foot restaurants sold more than 1.2 billion meals with toys to kids under 12 -- 20% of all revenues from children. Without toys, those sales might never have been made. Let's face it: kids wouldn't be going to fast-food restaurants if their parents didn't drive them there and pay for the meals.

Children do not on their own make the best choices. Most naturally gravitate to the least nutritious food they can find. But if parents don't make good choices for their kids, then who is to protect them? The San Francisco Board of Supervisors at least is taking a stab at encouraging restaurants to offer children something better.

After all, in the absence of parental responsibility, a nanny may be just what we need.