Why the Happy Meal is Un-American

18 May

Yes, I am back — with a vengeance. Welcome to today’s rant.

You may have heard lately about the passing of new legislation at the city level that “bans” McDonald’s Happy Meals. The legislation does no such thing, so allow me to explain the basics, for those unfamiliar.

San Francisco recently passed a city-wide law that requires food being marketed specifically to children through the inclusion of a toy to meet certain nutritional requirements.  A children’s Happy Meal from McDonald’s does not currently meet such standards. Beginning this fall in San Francisco, McDonald’s will have to either remove the toy from the meal, or reformat the food choices in it to continue selling the Happy Meal with a toy.

This news is resurfacing because New York City is now considering a similar and even more restrictive proposal. If such legislation passed in multiple major cities around the country, it might be significant enough to influence McDonald’s corporate policy on nutrition and toys.

The position in favor of nutritional requirements for child-marketed food goes like this: Happy Meals are nutritionally unsound. They are, aside from being very high in calories and sodium, part of a lifestyle that leads to increased rates of childhood obesity, which leads to serious disease. Children are particularly susceptible to advertising and marketing, and the inclusion of a toy in the Happy Meal is a way to incentivize what even McDonald’s acknowledges is unhealthy food. So stop using toys to reel in helpless, unsuspecting children. It’s a similar argument to the one used to prevent the continued use of Joe Camel as a marketing tool for cigarettes.

The position against the ban goes something like this: The War on Happiness.

Yes, the war on happiness. Leave it to conservatives to find a way to make not feeding children unhealthy food un-American.

I read this editorial, by former General Mills executive Hank Cardello, in detail because I disagree with it, and I wanted to be able to break down the argument in favor of “choice.” Turns out, that wasn’t too difficult.

Because even if it didn’t have a completely ludicrous title…

…Even if it didn’t romanticize the Happy Meal by calling it Americana…

…Even if this weren’t by an industry insider, with all the inherent incentive to tout free-market corrective techniques…

It would still be a stupid editorial.

The reason for this is that the editorial manages – unintentionally, I’m sure – to argue in favor of legislation banning the inclusion of toys with unhealthy food.

Cardello writes: “The smarter approach would be to create incentives for restaurant chains to devise menus that sell fewer calories per serving to their patrons.”

This is exactly what the so-called toy “ban” is!

Since all McDonald’s has to do, in order to package all the toys they want, is make their food healthier – the legislation does create an incentive for healthy alternatives. I imagine that when Cardello wrote “create incentives” he meant tax breaks for healthy food, or other positive incentives. But incentives can work both ways. When it comes to making sure kids stay healthy, and the fast food industry doesn’t seem particularly eager to change itself, I think negative incentives are warranted.

But beyond all that, legislation regulating the nutritional requirements of food marketed to children is, in fact, a response to the regulatory “failures” Cardello lists. When examining the “ineffective” legislation in this editorial, Cardello only cites voluntary legislation. That is, these laws provided information, not options. When past legislations have restricted access, they have done so without providing any alternative.

San Francisco and New York are trying to move beyond legislation that just suggests that something might be bad for children—they are trying, instead, to restrict children’s access to the unhealthy option by providing them with a healthier one.

Without access to fresh fruits and veggies, the FDA can send out all the food pyramids they want. Schoolchildren will stop becoming obese not just because they are told soda and flavored milk are unhealthy. The change comes when soda and flavored milk disappear as options, and are replaced with equivalently-priced healthy options like milk or water.

This goal is also more complex than it initially appears, because the people who are predominantly affected by McDonald’s unhealthy foods are low-income minorities. The link between race, socioeconomic status and obesity is well-established, and appears to be worsening. Black and Hispanic children are more likely to be obese, and one of the primary reasons has always been an increased exposure to fast food. Although food deserts are a topic for another, longer conversation, the link between race and fast food exposure has almost nothing to do with personal choice – it is a question of geographic access. Low-income minority parents have fewer choices when it comes to where to buy their children food, and less money to spend on food.

What this tells us is that parents aren’t just buying their children fast food because of the toy, but in many cases, because it is the cheapest of few options. Parents will stop buying their children fast food meals when a healthy, affordable alternative is made available, in the same place, for the same price. And that is the exact goal of these legislations.

So, Mr. Cardello, don’t sit there in your think tank and spew about the sovereignty of a parent’s right to provide their child with bad food (which, by the way, they are free to do at home). The doctrine of choice only works when you have a choice, not the artificial construction of one. And robbing parents of the right to choose better for their children?

Well, that’s downright un-American.

I’d love to hear what you think! Leave a comment and tell me if you think this legislation is a horrific affront to personal freedoms, or a necessary step in preventing childhood obesity. Or if you will just really miss the toys.

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2 Responses to “Why the Happy Meal is Un-American”

  1. Dan Coffey May 18, 2011 at 1:22 PM #

    Thanks for such a cogently written post, which will hopefully serve as a wake-up call to many!

    • wemeatagain May 18, 2011 at 7:49 PM #

      Thanks, Dan! I’m glad you enjoyed the post–it was a little heavy on the rant, so it’s good to hear the message still comes through. :)

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