Happy (Meals) in San Francisco?

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That roar you heard from San Francisco last week was not fans of the Giants winning the World Series, but from kids who heard the news that the local Board of Supervisors has voted to “ban Happy Meals” from being sold in the city.  What is going on here? 

First, two important points of clarification.  Contrary to the way the story is being discussed in some media outlets, these San Francisco lawmakers did not single out McDonald’s and Happy Meals on this issue.  It is not “Happy Meals,” specifically, that are targeted, but any restaurant chain that gives away a free toy enticement, in conjunction with the purchase of a high-fat or high-calorie meal.  (“High fat” and “high calorie” are defined by a group of Berkeley area nutrition and obesity experts.)  Because McDonald’s is so large and Happy Meals so ubiquitous, they represent the face of the ban.

And second, it is not the “Meals” – or the foods, high fat and high calorie though they may be – that are the object of the law.  It is the toy tie-ins themselves.  So to look at the purpose of this ban, it is not really about getting kids to eat healthier foods, at least on the surface.  It is really aimed at stemming the rising tide of direct marketing to kids, by manufacturers who have figured out ways to appeal to children, sometimes more effectively than their own parents can.

In my book “My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything,” I talk a lot about the rampant increase in recent years in the marketing of food products directly to children.  As a long-time veteran of the food marketing industry, not to mention the mother of two little boys, I am particularly mindful of the impact that all of this promotional advertising has on young children and on the buying habits of their caregivers. 

Children are a cheap and easy target and unfortunately, the food products that are “created especially for them” are the same way.  Not only are they often unhealthful – as in the case of a Happy Meal, which ranges from about 380 – 690 calories and 13 – 29 total grams of fat, depending on which version you choose – but they offer nothing in the way of taste or flavor.  Virtually all children’s products are comprised of a “flavor base” made exclusively of fat, salt or sugar.  If you think about it, they are all basically the same thing, just packaged and sold under different labels.

Food companies have figured out ways that you wouldn’t believe to reach your kids, to tell them about these products.  From their earliest daycare years, little kids are the subject of targeted advertising programs that include things like tie-ins with popular cartoon characters. In this space next week, I’ll talk more about some of these marketing strategies, including reliance on the infamous “nag factor.”

So one city is has finally had enough, and is taking a step to ban kiddie-marketing.  What do you think of this?

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One Response to “Happy (Meals) in San Francisco?”

  1. Michelle Lehman Says:

    This is such an interesting issue, Nancy. It really challenges those of us that are foodies, but also in favor of empowering parents, not the government, to make the decisions that are best for our children.

    I’m certainly not in favor of happy meals as a nutritional staple, but I still believe the government should not be in the position of weighing in on American’s food choices. This is just one step closer to banning advertisements and taxing food that “experts” deem unhealthful. I worry that this is a slippery slope and a great deal of government overreach.

    That being said, I definitely hold my child to stricter eating standards and pride myself on the fact that she’s always only eaten homemade foods – no formula or commercial baby food. That’s what I feel is best for my family, but I leave it to others to determine what’s best for theirs, and if it includes the occasional happy meal (and toy) then that’s their decision.

    Definitely a great post – good food for thought!

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