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How the Happy Meal ban explains San Francisco 

Wednesday, Jan 19 2011
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McDonald's, which has protested San Francisco's legislation as overreaching, is keeping mum on whether its options involve litigation. It's already on the receiving end of a suit in San Francisco court by a woman named Monet Parham, who claims the chain is engaged in "a highly sophisticated scheme to use the bait of toys to exploit children's developmental immaturity and subvert parental authority."

Yet even if yanking the toys out of Happy Meals — by order of a municipality or a judge — keeps kids away from McDonald's, that's no guarantee youngsters will be eating responsibly. No health or nutrition expert SF Weekly spoke with saw this as a meaningful move in the fight against childhood obesity. "This is an attention-getting way to draw interest to pediatric obesity," says UCSF nutritionist Patricia Booth. "Will it have any impact on pediatric obesity? I'd say not." She notes that it "seems unlikely" that Happy Meals "are contributing that large a percentage of [children's] calories." Let us hope.

Booth's colleague, public health nutrition investigator Barbara Laria, says the Happy Meal ban was a blow against the insidious practice of marketing directly to children — "but just such a tiny, tiny, little step in that direction. ... This is a very small piece of legislation."

A city can do only so much to stem the tide against a national epidemic like pediatric obesity. But, without question, San Francisco could do more than take tiny steps — if it reorganized its priorities. When asked what substantive moves this city could make to help its children eat better, every expert SF Weekly consulted — unanimously and independently — stated the obvious: Improve school lunches.

San Francisco politicos are proud of our schoolchildren's lunches — "These salad bars are working!" was one of the more memorable lines in former Mayor Gavin Newsom's epic, 7.5-hour YouTube state of the city address in 2008. To an extent, these salad bars are working. Zetta Reicker, the San Francisco Unified School District's assistant director of nutrition services, says that 50 percent of students are availing themselves of the salad bars that so titillated Newsom. They are made possible by partial subsidization from the city, to the tune of $250,000.

But that quarter of a million dollars represents just over 1 percent of the district's school lunch program's $18 million yearly budget. The other 99 percent of the program isn't working as well.

In order to serve 22,000 lunches a day, the district can afford to spend just $1 per meal. On such a budget, it's actually astounding that San Francisco's students are served food with any semblance of healthfulness at all — its meals are a far cry from the ketchup-and-grease-soaked dreck that likely haunts readers' memories. Yet "beef sausage pizza," "French bread cheese pizza," and "creamy chicken bow-tie pasta" are all on this month's menu — and all of these entrées arrive, frozen, on a truck from Chicago. Lunch on Jan. 19 — "cheeseburger with baked beans" — beats McDonald's cheeseburger, fries, and soda on the nutritional front. But it isn't health food. Maybe that's because even a Happy Meal costs more than a dollar.

The school district "is doing amazing things with very little," says Rajiv Bajtia, the city's director of environmental health. In fact, San Francisco is meeting the USDA's "Gold Standard" — and Reicker notes that the school lunch program is running at a deficit in order to do so. "Imagine if they had a little more," Bajtia continues. "Imagine if they had a local cooking kitchen."

Imagining is about all we can do at this point. Doing something substantive about school lunches would require taking on the political gorgon of overlapping local, state, and federal jurisdictions. Changing the status quo would not be easy — in fact, even maintaining the status quo is challenging. Administering school lunch programs is such a bureaucratic nightmare that San Francisco in 2009 lost out on millions in federal reimbursements by not following to the letter Byzantine rules regarding serving procedure and student eligibility.

Improving school lunches is one of the most intractable problems any politician could hope to take on. Yet any serious attempt to combat childhood obesity is meaningless if school meals are still repositories of freeze-dried fat. Only a public servant who was willing to work tirelessly, raise revenue — and go without glory for a long time — could even potentially make it happen. Perhaps if Eric Mar were president of the school board, he could have undertaken this Herculean task. Except, of course, that he was president of the school board in 2005 and a member from 2001 to 2009 — and didn't.

Mar, however, did in 2004 help push through a school board resolution banning cafeterias from serving meat irradiated to kill bacteria — even though, per the resolution, "the SFUSD has not in the past used irradiated foods, is not currently using these products, and has no current plans or proposal to use such foods."

After he became a city supervisor, with no real responsibility over children's eating habits, Mar decided to make an even more grandiose crusade of childhood health through a mostly symbolic gesture.

About The Authors

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
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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