The Happy Meal Ban – Not So Happy, Not So Effective


By B Hannan and C Fernandez

In an attempt to reduce the growing obesity rate in Santa Clara county, the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors voted to ban restaurants from giving away toys with children’s meals that exceed set levels of calories, fat, salt and sugar. This translates into the banning of toys on meals with more than 485 calories, more than 600 mg of salt, and have more than 35 percent of their calories from fat or 10 percent from sweeteners . The nutritional standard is based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, a non-profit organization that published ground-breaking reports on preventing childhood obesity and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services .For example, a McDonald’s Happy Meal with Chicken McNuggets (4), small fries, and a 1% low-milk drink contains 520 calories and nearly 700 milligrams of sodium. The most popular Happy Meal: a cheeseburger, low fat milk, and apple caramel dippers have 500 calories and 15 grams of fat . Hence, a toy would not be offered with these meals. According to the measure, one in four 7th, 9th and 11th graders in Santa Clara County was either obese or overweight from 2007 to 2008 . The ban covers only unincorporated areas of the county. While the county has 151 restaurants, the ban directly affects 12 restaurants that offer children’s meals. Restaurants can be fined up to $1000 for violating the ban.
While this ban is certainly attention-grabbing and symbolic for the county, Santa Clara officials may be missing the mark on developing initiatives that truly reduce obesity. To date, there is no conclusive evidence linking the addition of toys in fast food meals to obesity levels. Obviously, it is the frequency of fast food consumption, quality of fast food and inactivity of children that are more direct contributors. Proponents for the ban argue that the addition of toys increase a child’s desire to demand a fast food meal. Yet, the point the board is missing is that children do not drive themselves to fast food restaurants and pay of their own meals: parents do. Santa Clara parents, like all parents, are challenged with getting their families quick and affordable meals. By only addressing toys, children may demand certain meal boxes less, but they will still be taken to fast food restaurants by parents seeking to feed their children in an affordable manner.

In an effort to de-link children’s association between fast food and prizes, the Board has managed to alienate important stakeholders such as parents and the Santa Clara fast food industry . The Board of Santa Clara have received letters and complaints from parents and restaurants alike. Some Santa Clara parents do not like the idea of local government choosing what meals their children can eat; others are indifferent. Restaurants in Santa Clara attest that they were not given any forewarning or opportunity to address their meal offerings. The 12 restaurants affected directly by the ban are the most discouraged by the new legislation. McDonalds restaurant have responded formally stating that they are “disappointed” by the decision and that “Happy Meals provide many of the important nutrients that children need .” The California Restaurant Association is watching the bill closely, nervous that this type of ban may be implemented in other parts of the state. Proponents of the ban such as the Santa Clara Public Health department and local health professionals have been virtually silent in the media regarding the issue.

While choosing to focus on fast foods to reduce childhood obesity is a worthy endeavor, by focusing on meal prizes the board is passing up opportunities to work with local fast food companies on other initiatives. Other initiatives could include:

– Finding more ways to post calorie and fat content on “meal boxes” or paper trays. We believe that parents should receive comparison meals so that parents understand the relative nutritional value of a meal versus an alternative meal.
– Giving incentives to fast foods companies to offer healthy alternative kids meals that are nutritious and affordable (incorporating more fruits and vegetables)
– Influencing restaurants to offer “healthy” toys that influence children to be active (ex. jump ropes, balls, etc.)
– Encouraging fast food restaurants to highlight their healthy choices of food when they advertise, which would be another means to market healthy choices to children

While the Board of Santa Clara attempts to de-link the association of prizes to fast food, they also may have enhanced the association of wanting fast food to punishment and denial. Better crafted initiatives for more positive associations are warranted.









9 Responses to “The Happy Meal Ban – Not So Happy, Not So Effective”

  1. valerie harvey Says:

    Thank you for your posting on such a significant issue. The staggering statistics regarding childhood obesity are alarming. I agree with the author, while the removal of toys from the Happy Meal is an important symbolic gesture- it will likely have minimal impact on a parent’s decision to purchase fast food. From an ecological perspective- there are numerous factors that contribute to making unhealthy food choices. These include intrapersonal factors (lifestyle), the social/institutional environment (family demographics, social norms), the physical environment (neighborhoods and fast food outlets) and the macrosystem (media, food access and availability). The authors are correct, by focusing on one minor component (toys and happy meals), the Board of Santa Clara has alienated key stakeholders and ignored some of the more important issues such as demanding that restaurants offer healthier alternatives on their menus, and educating parents on the long term health effects of childhood obesity.

  2. oharrison0 Says:

    Based on the sheer burden of disease caused by obesity and its consequences this topic is so important that some say it defines Public Health in our time in both developed and developing countries.

    In addition to the staggering epidemiology, obesity is an important topic because it is an example of complex aetiology (with critical genetic, environmental and behavioural factors) meaning we must innovate in how we approach understanding the condition, and the effective public health interventions. In this context, this article highlights two intertwined issues that require urgent attention: the misalignment of incentives between the food industry and the public health, and the “asymmetric war” in marketing. Fast food companies know very well that providing toys to children drives consumption of their products (and revenues); that’s why they do it! It is quite natural for such companies to defend this commercial practice. Their products are already created as “superstimuli” that overwhelm the decision-making apparatus of the brain, particularly in children; the provision of toys is a cynical further ploy to drive further and more frequent consumption of their unhealthy products. The dollar spend of the food industry substantially dwarfs the dollar spend of public health institutions. Operating in fiercely competitive markets where only the fittest survive has honed their skills such that their products, their stores, and their TV/radio/newspaper/magazine/online advertising are all optimised to drive revenues.

    If we are going to win the “war against obesity” (to coin a phrase) we must find ways to work with rather than against the fast food industry. In this light it is promising to see the substantial change of direction by PepsiCo under their new CEO, Mrs Indira Nooyi; the company has made public pledges about the composition and sales of its products. They do this not because they have lost the desire for profits, but in order to outflank their competitors (for example Coca Cola whom they believe cannot innovate so quickly). PepsiCo believe that the wind of public policy is changing direction and that governments will increasingly find ways to make “healthy” pay and “unhealthy” cost meaning companies will have a stronger incentive to drive healthier products. I certainly hope their belief is not mis-placed. In fact more than passively hoping, I pledge to continue working within public health to find ways to make this change happen.

    This is one of the defining challenges of our time.

  3. Debbie Vasquez Says:

    It is parental responsibilty to control their children. Irresponsible parent’s need to stop blaming other’s for their failures.

  4. Kitchen Cupboards · Says:

    i have a very busy lifestyle too, and i would always frequently eat on Fastfoods “.:

  5. Carpet Shampooer Says:

    of course when you dont have time to cook, fastfoods would always be the best option ‘–

  6. ProgressiveM.D. Says:

    It seems to me that poor people are spending their hard earned money on the dollar menu. We need to look long and hard at whether we are subsidizing the poor too much. If they could not afford the dollar menu perhaps they would choose to spend their money on less processed and better quality food that in the long run costs much less.

  7. Nieruchomości online Says:

    Interesting article just yet my English is in the learning phase so I can not comment on it better and I apologize for it the developer blog … I also greet the other readers and commenters

  8. marinming Says:

    I don’t think that ‘blaming the individual’ is the most helpful approach we can take here. Simply telling people to eat healthy food and blaming them for making poor choices, while certainly the easy way out, has clearly not been effective. I favour the option of steering towards such things as altering taxation structures to favour healthy choices and penalize unhealthy ones. These choices are then made together by the manufacturers (who want their food to appear ‘healthy’) as well as the consumers (who sometimes only have a few dollars and need to satisfy hungry families). Why not tax the poor-nutritional value food in order to subsidize healthier foods? An “obesity tax” of sorts. Since the strongest motivational factor for human beings and corporations alike seems to be cost, this would ‘help’ to make people make the right choices. The payoffs to the health care system would be tremendous. This approach could run the entire spectrum from grocery stores to fast food chains to fine dining. People are still free to pay more for bad food if that’s what they really want – but if it’s cheap, fast food that people need, let’s make the healthier choices more affordable. Carrots should be cheaper than chips.

  9. dietary list Says:

    dietary list

    The Happy Meal Ban – Not So Happy, Not So Effective | SBFPHC Policy Advocacy

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