I have been writing a lot about healthy foods lately, including the provision of more healthy lunches in schools. But it has also occurred to me that I ought to qualify my fervor by stating that in general, I don't think the government should be telling us what to eat. It may be for our own good to consume healthier foods, and it may even be better for society as a whole. But in my opinion, individuals should be free to make their own priorities on something of this nature. So while I support healthy choices, I would like to keep those things as choices.
School lunches (about which I wrote in my last post) are a very specific subset of food. Since the government largely subsidizes public school food and even offers free lunch for those who qualify, what is served in school cafeterias could be broadly classified as the government providing the food for our nation's children, not just allowing it to be served. In that case, I think the government and schools should do what they can to provide nutritious meals rather than junk. Parents still have the option to send their kids to school with something different, so I don't really see this as a mandate on our behavior.
Recently, however, my dad mentioned that San Francisco passed a law forbidding McDonald's and other such establishments from providing free toys in their Happy Meals. I checked it out, and CNN says it's a legitimate story! The law took effect December 1, 2011, and requires that a meal which includes a toy must be below a certain calorie limit and provide a particular threshold of fruits and vegetables, among other conditions. Proponents of the law argue that these toys are marketed to kids to entice them into purchasing unhealthy meals (or to put it more accurately, into begging their parents to buy them unhealthy meals.)
I actually do believe that fast food is a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic in this country. I am all in favor of healthier menu options, and I think parents should be careful to provide their children with a healthy, well-balance diet.
But the truth is, ever since the invention of sugar and trans fats, kids have been begging their parents to buy unhealthy foods. I used to eat Snickers ice cream bars at my friend's houses, cookies at my aunt's house, Fruit by the Foot at my grandma's house, and sugar cereal at the houses of those for whom I babysat. But when I went to the grocery store with my parents, did they then feel obligated to purchase sweets and fatty snacks at my every whim? Absolutely not! Why? My parents were the parents of our household, and while they allowed me to indulge in the occasional treat with a friend or family member, they knew the power of "no!"
I understand why we ban advertisements that make dangerous substances look cool to teenagers. Teenagers sometimes have cars, jobs, and a fair amount of freedom. So I am totally on board with banning cigarette advertisements aimed at young people, who are legally too young to consume them, but may have the will and the means to buy them.
Happy Meal toys, on the other hand, are typically designed for very young children. The last time I checked, six-year-olds don't have cars, jobs, or any significant freedoms. So whether or not McDonald's advertises a free toy on television, I am pretty sure it is parents who are driving their kids to McDonald's, forking over the money, and acquiescing to their child's desires.
My parents were not scrooges. They occasionally took us to McDonald's growing up, mainly when we were on a road trip, and sometimes just as a special treat. And we were allowed to have desserts on weekends or, as mentioned above, at another family's house. But my sister and I understood not to even ask most other days, because we already knew what the answer would be. No. The same answer my parents would give when we asked for quarters to play every game in a store. The same answer my parents would give when we asked to buy a toy when it was not our birthday. The same answer my parents would give when we asked to sleep over at a friend's house with no parental supervision.
Despite the television commercials, peer pressure, flashy signs, and twinkling music that constantly bombarded our family, my parents were able to use their discretion to say no.
In my opinion, mandating what a restaurant should and should not serve, beyond what is considered safe for consumption by the FDA, crosses the line in overbearing governance. If you don't want to eat the food, don't go there! There are plenty of other choices. California chain restaurants are already required to post the calorie counts of their offerings, and after that, consumers make their own decisions.
It seems to me that if parents are not already using common sense to moderate the amount of fast food their children consume, taking away the free toy is not going to change much. It is parents who drive the vehicles, earn the money, and ultimately make the choices. And it is parents who must ultimately take responsibility for the willpower to say no.
If the lure of a cheap trinket is enough to sway parents away from consistently doing what is best for their children, I don't think the trinket is really the issue.
Oh, and I wouldn't want to neglect mentioning the best part!
The outcome of all this law-making nonsense? The San Francisco McDonalds' now charge 10 cents to customers who want to purchase the toy separately, with all proceeds going to the Ronald McDonald House charity.