San Francisco Bans Happy Meals: No More Toys With Fatty Meals

The San Francisco board of supervisors votes to forbid restaurants from giving away toys with meals that have high levels of calories, sugar and fat.

The San Francisco board of supervisors voted by veto-proof margin to forbid restaurants from offering a free toy with meals that contain more than set levels of calories, sugar and fat. Photo: Christina Kennedy/Wiki Commons

In another significant vote on the health front on Tuesday, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors took a big step toward an ordinance against McDonald’s Happy Meals and similar fast-food offerings handing out toys as part of junky kids’ meals.

San Francisco’s board of supervisors passed an ordinance requiring meals that included toys with their purchase to meet specific nutritional guidelines. It would also require restaurants to provide fruits and vegetables with all meals for children that come with toys.

“This is a tremendous victory for our children’s health,” said Supervisor Eric Mar, who sponsored the measure. “We’re part of a movement that is moving forward an agenda of food justice.”

“From San Francisco to New York City, the epidemic of childhood obesity in this country is making our kids sick, particularly kids from low income neighborhoods, at an alarming rate. It’s a survival issue and a day-to-day issue,” he added.

The legislation, which sponsors said is intended to promote healthy eating and help combat childhood obesity, was passed on an 8-3 vote – the bare minimum needed to overturn Mayor Gavin Newsom’s promised veto.

The measure will make San Francisco the first major city in the country to forbid restaurants from offering a free toy with meals that contain more than set levels of calories, sugar and fat.

The board is scheduled to take a final vote next week. If it goes on the books, the restrictions wouldn’t go into effect until December 2011.

McDonald’s, the world’s largest fast food restaurant chain, took the lead in fighting the proposal. Just after the vote, McDonald’s spokeswoman Danya Proud said: “We are extremely disappointed with today’s decision. It’s not what our customers want, nor is it something they asked for.”

Scott Rodrick, who owns 10 McDonald’s franchises in the city, said: “Somehow the San Francisco Board of Supervisors just took the happy out of Happy Meals. It would be an understatement to say how disappointed I am with this legislation.”

He added that the restrictions could hurt his business and cost jobs if customers cross the San Francisco border for a traditional Happy Meal experience. He and other restaurant industry representatives said parents – not lawmakers – should decide what their children eat.

The ban was also opposed by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who was vying to be lieutenant governor in Tuesday’s election. But because the measure was passed by 8 votes — one more than needed to override a veto — his opposition doesn’t matter unless one of the supervisors changes his or her mind after the promised veto.

Mar said that right wouldn’t be taken away. Toys, he noted, still would be allowed in meals that meet the healthier nutritional guidelines. “It’s not a ban; it’s an incentive,” Mar said.

Under the ordinance, restaurants may include a toy with a meal if the food contains less than 600 calories, less than 640 milligrams of sodium and if less than 35 percent of the calories are derived from fat, except for fat contained in nuts, seeds, eggs or low-fat cheese.

In addition, the meals must contain a half-cup or more of fruit and three-quarters of a cup or more of vegetables. A breakfast meal must contain at least a half-cup of fruit or vegetables.

Daniel Conway, spokesman for the California Restaurant Assn,  said the fast food industry could respond in a number of ways to the ordinance.

Some might continue to include toys but charge separately for them. Others might reformulate their meals so that they comply with the law. Restaurants might also simply stop offering children’s meals altogether, he said.

Mar, who had the backing of the city’s public health officials, modeled his proposal after a first-in-the-nation law in Santa Clara County adopted earlier this year that only applies to a handful of restaurants in the county’s unincorporated areas. San Francisco’s restrictions would affect dozens of fast-food establishments.

Dufty, the swing vote Mar needed to assure a veto-proof majority, said the powerful lure of toys that come with kids meals puts parents who may want to steer their children toward healthier food choices at fast-food restaurants at a distinct disadvantage.

“I want to encourage these major stakeholders to act now. I think we can take a bold move here and say, you know what, you really need to think about the fact that you can market whole wheat products, you can market carrots,” Dufty said.

“If you have to put a Shrek doll with a package of carrots,” Dufty added, “maybe that’s what you have to do, but there hasn’t been a real incentive for this industry to do that, and I think that this legislation in a small appropriate way is a step to say you need to do things differently.”

The ban, Mar said, was crucial to the fight against childhood obesity and the illnesses that go along with it, including diabetes and the risk of heart problems and stroke. The cost of fighting those diseases will be in the billions. “It’s astronomical how much it’s going to cost if we don’t address it,” Mar said. [via SF Weekly and San Francisco Chronicle]

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