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Should burgers and toys be against the law?

On November 2, as much of the nation will vote to reelect senators and pass propositions—and kiss those soul-crushing political ads goodbye—San Francisco’s board of city supervisors will decide the fate of an old standby: the McDonald’s Happy Meal. If passed, the proposed ordinance would ban Bay Area restaurants from including toys or prizes in children’s meals that are high in sodium, sugar, fat and calories. Meals that offer fruits and vegetables, however, could legally keep the fun stuff. 

As a kid in the mid-’80s, I ate many McDonald’s meals—along with squishy white Wonderbread slices smothered in margarine, Mrs. Butterworth-topped frozen waffles and other overly processed, nutrient-void children’s staples of that decade. But very rarely was I allowed a Happy Meal. Why? As my mom would say sternly, “I’m not paying 20 cents extra for the stupid toy.” Translation: You could get the same amount of food for less money if you ordered each item à la carte—and no kid needed to be rewarded with a wind-up Mayor McCheese just for eating a burger.

Clearly, my mom’s anti­-Happy Meal stance had been a product of staunch penny-pinching and not of concern for saturated fat or chemical-laden “cheese product.” (Remember, this was northern Minnesota in 1984.) Yet I think it demonstrates a good point: Whether driven by health concerns, eco-consciousness, cost or otherwise, parents do have a choice in what they feed their children.

Of course not every parent can afford organic asparagus even if they’d like to, and for some, a crazy-busy schedule may mean serving up more mac ’n’ cheese than desired. But when it comes to banning toys so that kids don’t desire them and parents don’t give in to their kids’ desires, will measures of this nature really work? Would those same parents who frequent the drive-through head elsewhere—someplace healthier—to feed their families if toys and prizes were no longer in the mix? Or, on the flip side, would the promise of a toy be enough to make kids happily chow down carrot sticks if veggies were suddenly part of the package? If that’s the case, would some parents see this ban as a gift, in that they no longer have to try so hard keep their kids healthy?

And then, I wonder, why not enact these rules? Would really the only negatives be that a few fast-food chains have to refocus their marketing efforts and donate their unsold mini action figures to charity? If this ordinance caused a few more kids to eat a few fewer French fries, then maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

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