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How the Happy Meal ban explains San Francisco 

Wednesday, Jan 19 2011

In August 2010, San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar decided that city intervention was needed to help him raise his daughter.

As Mar later told reporters, he was shocked to discover a trove of toys from McDonald's Happy Meals stashed in her room. Mar was the one taking his daughter to McDonald's and buying the food — but he said that the "pester power" of a preteen was simply too much for him to withstand on his own. So he proposed that the city ban restaurants from including toys with meals of more than 600 calories that lack agreed-upon amounts of fruits and vegetables.

Mar's "Healthy Meal Incentive Ordinance" subsequently passed in November by an 8-3 vote in the Board of Supervisors — a veto-proof majority. Barring legal action, the Happy Meal as we know it will be verboten in San Francisco come Dec. 1. Eric Mar's daughter has been saved.

Both conservative blowhard Bill O'Reilly and left-leaning comedian Lewis Black — and many, many people in-between — were left to wonder "What the hell?" in the wake of San Francisco's ban. It's not the first time. In recent years, San Francisco government has passed numerous laws to make us healthier, greener, and — in the city's eyes — all-around better people. Whether we like it or not. This includes banning the sale of cigarettes in drugstores, and, later, supermarkets; banning plastic bags in large chain stores; banning bottled water in City Hall, and the sale of soft drinks on government property; banning the declawing of cats; making composting mandatory; and forbidding city departments from doing business with companies that were involved in the (pre–Civil War) slave trade, yet haven't publicly atoned.

The city may yet ban the sale of any pets except fish, and the sale of bottled water during events on public property. Banning foie gras, meanwhile, didn't catch on, even here. Neither did allowing the city to prosecute anyone who depicts images of animal cruelty if they set foot in San Francisco — essentially the same niche Belgium has carved out for itself with accused war criminals.

San Francisco's acumen for imposing bans has grown so pronounced that when an anticircumcision zealot began disseminating a petition to criminalize the practice within city limits, observers nationwide didn't write it off as fringe lunacy but, instead, saw it as just another day at the office in San Francisco.

That ban didn't make the cut. And San Francisco does not have a monopoly on banning things. But nowhere else can you ban so much with such ease and so little political blowback.

It would take an advanced degree in sanctimoniousness to shed a tear for the loss of your freedom to choose paper or plastic. And will someone really nail himself to the cross of individual liberties over the loss of a plastic My Little Pony toy commemorating the day you were outdebated by a 10-year-old? It would, however, be equally hard to claim that any one of San Francisco's bans has really had its intended substantive effect on local lives.

But when you put San Francisco's laundry list of bans alongside New York City's fatwa against trans fats, Chicago's slavery disclosure ordinance (they beat us to it), or Seattle's mandatory composting laws (beat us again, damn it!), it becomes clear that a left-leaning pack of cities is fundamentally changing the role — and pushing the limits — of local government. It's a movement fueled by the perception that state and federal government are unable or unwilling to tackle big problems like pollution or rampant obesity. So municipalities are marching headlong into the void, attempting to save the world one plastic bag, Big Mac, cigarette butt, or water bottle at a time. And San Francisco is leading the parade.

"The assumption, at least in academic literature, is that cities shouldn't be doing any of this," says USF political science professor Corey Cook. "It's sort of astonishing to me what these cities are doing; it dives headfirst into the question of where the lines for local government are drawn." City progressives say that's just the point. "I think that we're picking up the ball because for whatever reasons, the state and federal systems are not responding to these issues," Supervisor David Campos says. "We see the need to do something, and are not afraid to do that."

As is so often the case in San Francisco, everyone has the best of intentions. But now that we've reached the point where city officials have meticulously worked out what quantity of multigrains and fruits must be present in a meal in order for a restaurant to earn the privilege of including a toy with it, it's reasonable to wonder if San Francisco's elected leaders believe there's anything they shouldn't be deciding for you.

City legislators haven't just saved you from the perils of the Happy Meal. They've also supersized the role of local government.

The great irony of San Francisco's Happy Meal ban is that it's the legislative equivalent of a Happy Meal. It's a small and cheap attempt at something substantive; it feels good going down, like consuming a greasy burger and fries. But feeling good and doing good aren't synonymous. Data from a recent survey of Americans' fast food choices indicates banning toys from fast food meals won't help San Francisco's youth.

A self-funded "restaurant selection study" of 1,200 Americans undertaken by customer satisfaction consultants the CFI Group found that an astounding 32 percent of McDonald's patrons were eating at the Golden Arches primarily because a child had pushed them to — compared to other fast food outlets, where a kid was the "primary decider" just 7 percent of the time. And yet, among diners with kids in tow, only 19 percent cited a toy as playing any part in their decision to go to McDonald's — and just 8 percent said the toy was the main reason.

"The city appears to be correct — McDonald's does have a foothold in leveraging children's influence," says Michael Drago, a CFI executive who worked on the survey. "But the toy isn't the cause of it." Rather, he says, it's the untold billions McDonald's has overtly poured into marketing to children, virtually from day one of its existence. That includes cartoon characters, playgrounds, and, most of all, making its restaurants kid-friendly, convenient places to spend a few dollars and consume a few thousand calories. "McDonald's, like all quick-service restaurants, dominates not because the food is exceptional but because it's convenient and affordable," he continues. "People have a shortage of time and income, and grabbing a burger for them is a fair exchange versus preparing a homemade meal. The more knowledgeable those parents and families are, the more likely that behavior will change. Our data said removal of a toy will not change that behavior."

About The Authors

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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