S.F. Proposal: Healthier Kids Meals or No Toys
San Francisco Chronicle
August 11, 2010
Toys that have been synonymous with kids' meals at fast-food restaurants could soon be banned in San Francisco under a new law proposed Tuesday if the food contains too much fat, sugar or salt.
Earlier this year, Santa Clara County became the first local government in the nation to adopt such a law, but it only applies to unincorporated areas and affects a handful of restaurants.
San Francisco's proposal could have a far greater impact. The restrictions would pertain to all restaurants but effectively would target the dozens of fast-food establishments in the city, among them McDonald's, Jack in the Box and Burger King.
San Francisco's legislation would not prohibit toy giveaways outright, but limit them to menu items that meet strict nutrition guidelines.
For example, no single item could contain more than 200 calories or 480 milligrams of sodium. An entire meal could have no more than 600 calories.
That would wipe out all but a handful of the Happy Meal offerings at McDonald's - and none of those options include a small hamburger. Several meet the calorie count, but would fail on the sodium content.
"Our legislation will encourage restaurants that offer unhealthy meals marketed toward children and youth to offer healthier food options with incentive items or toys," said Supervisor Eric Mar, chief sponsor of the legislation.
"It will help protect the public's health, reduce costs to our health care system and promote healthier eating habits," he said.
Fruits and veggies
In addition, the proposal would dictate that the meals that come with toys also have a helping of fruit and vegetables. Not spelled out in the legislation is whether ketchup, pickle relish and French fries would fulfill that requirement.
The focus on fast-food meals marketed to kids comes amid a heightened awareness of health problems associated with childhood obesity and diabetes.
Rajiv Bhatia, director of occupational and environmental health for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, helped craft Mar's legislation and said many of the existing menu offerings could conform to the proposed nutritional standards by reducing the portion size or altering some of the ingredients.
"This is not an anti-toy ordinance; this is a pro-healthy-meal ordinance," Bhatia said. "The assumption is that restaurants can meet these standards."
But should a government so boldly intrude on the eating habits of the people who live here and visit? Mar said the proposal wouldn't stop people from eating the high-fat and high-salt foods, but would remove an incentive for young people to clamor for them.
The restaurant industry doesn't like the strategy.
"The San Francisco Board of Supervisors seems to have an insatiable appetite for punishing the restaurant industry. However, the widespread ridicule that this proposal will receive should give them a case of heartburn," said Daniel Conway, director of public affairs for the California Restaurant Association.
"Toy bans are only proven to disappoint kids, frustrate parents and generate headlines for ambitious politicians," Conway added. "The Board of Supervisors needs to stop gorging on political gimmicks and instead focus on creating jobs in their city."
Santa Clara's restriction, which was adopted in April, took effect Monday. Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Ken Yeager, who authored the law, has received inquiries from officials in San Francisco, Chicago, New York City and Orange County.
Leave it to the parents
Two blocks from San Francisco City Hall, Ursula Choice sat in a McDonald's on Van Ness Avenue with her 3- and 6-year-old sons, who each got a plastic Marvel comics hero figurine in their Happy Meals. Were San Francisco's proposed law already in effect, they wouldn't have gotten the toys: Their cheeseburgers, fries and boxed apple juice exceed both the proposed caloric and sodium threshold.
Choice said coming to McDonald's was a treat for her boys, who had to endure a visit to the nearby Board of Education headquarters to enroll her oldest son in school. "They were hungry. We got something quick and they got toys to play with," Choice, 24, said.
"These are growing boys, extremely active. I think it should be up to the parents, not the city, to decide what they eat."
Under the proposed legislation, restaurants in San Francisco would not be allowed to provide an "incentive item," such as toys, trading cards or admission tickets, linked to the purchase of an individual menu item or meal that includes:
- More than 200 calories for a single item or more than 600 calories for a meal. (A typical fast food hamburger has at least 250 calories, according to McDonald's and Burger King nutritional websites.)
- More than 480 milligrams of sodium for a single item or 640 milligrams for a meal. (A typical fast-food hamburger has 520 milligrams of sodium.)
- More than 35 percent of its calories derived from fat, unless the fat is contained in nuts, seeds or nut butters, or from a packaged egg or packaged low-fat or reduced-fat cheese.
- More than 10 percent of its calories derived from saturated fats, with the exception of nuts, seeds, packaged eggs or packaged low-fat or reduced-fat cheese.
- More than 0.5 grams of trans fat.
- Meals must include at least a half-cup of fruit and three-quarters of a cup of vegetables.
- A beverage may not have more than 35 percent of its calories fat-based or more than 10 percent of its calories sugar-based.