From happy to healthy

From happy to healthy

Sara Yang

Santa Clara passes an ordinance banning current promotional toys at fast-food restaurants

Over 30 years ago, an American icon was born — the McDonald's Happy Meal.  Today's meal is a kid-friendly set of a burger or chicken nuggets, side, drink and toy.  In other words, when you order a standard Happy Meal, expect 500 calories or more — and a toy.  Prompted by nutritional criticism in recent years, the restaurant chain introduced healthier alternatives to the traditional fries and soft drinks.

But in Santa Clara County, it looks like this restaurant's efforts for an improved menu have not been enough.  On April 26, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance banning fast food chains from distributing toys and promotional giveaways unless meals meet nutritional guidelines detailed in the bill.  Enacted in a 3-2 affirmative vote, the new legislation will take effect 90 days after the decision, August 9.

The principle behind the ordinance is that toys included in meals act as an incentive for customers to make the purchase.  With the fast food industry expending millions of dollars on kids' meal promotions, that is exactly what supporters for the measure are working against.

As the bill sponsor, Board President and Supervisor Ken Yeager has acted as the main advocate and spokesperson for the ordinance.

"We're just trying to disassociate the toy and the marketing of the toy with the actual food itself," Yeager said.  "It's really about the toy and not the meals… and why would the kids know that those meals far exceed how much fat or sodium and calories that they need in the daily meal?"

Case in point?

"[When I was younger] I was really fat," sophomore Andrew Cai-li said.  "[I went to McDonald's] every time I could go, every time there [were] new toys and I wanted the new ones."

  On the flip side, naysayers believe that the government should leave decision-making to the restaurants and families when it comes to marketing and ordering off the menu.  According to a poll by the California Restaurant Association, 87 percent of the county opposed the bill.

Yet, support for the measure has stemmed from a movement targeting childhood obesity.  One in four children in the county is cited as obese or overweight, while some county clinics focus entirely on treating obesity.  On average, it has been speculated that children born in the year 2000 will nurture shorter life spans than their parents due to chronic weight-related health problems.

"We have to take the issue of childhood obesity very seriously," Yeager said.  "We as a society have to put the health care bill for these kids, and that is very much a role that the government should play."

For others, the situation is not so black-and-white.

"I'm kind of for [the bill] but I'm kind of against it," Cai-li said.  "If you're a kid and you only go there for the toys, it's bad for you food-wise… but I kind of like the toys, it has sentimental value to them."

Though it is uncertain as to whether fast food chains will comply with the ordinance nutritional regulations, the bill is expected to affect a dozen restaurant chains and about 100 individual businesses.  According to Yeager, interest to institute similar policy has been recognized nationally and internationally, from San Francisco to New York to Australia.

As of now, one thing is certain — some may not be so happy about Happy Meals anymore.