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How the Happy Meal ban explains San Francisco 

Wednesday, Jan 19 2011

Page 3 of 5

Like a Happy Meal, the city's Happy Meal legislation is cheap — Bajtia doesn't expect to field many complaint-based inspections of renegade fast food outlets, and San Franciscans won't be asked to cough up a dime. Like a Happy Meal, it's convenient — San Franciscans are more likely to proclaim George W. Bush a misunderstood genius than they are to protest McDonald's being unfairly victimized over the quality of its food. And, like a Happy Meal, our city's legislation is superficial. In the meantime, it warrants mentioning that not one meal served to San Francisco's schoolchildren in December or January — the 708-calorie beef dippers; the 711-calorie cheese lasagna; or the 712-calorie chicken nuggets — would qualify under the Healthy Meal Incentive Ordinance to be allowed to come with a toy.

San Francisco is trying to hold McDonald's to a higher standard than it is willing to hold itself.

Despite San Francisco's noble intentions, the world remains stubbornly unsaved. In fact, the jury remains out on whether the city's spate of bans has even made life better for residents. While banning things gets this city the headlines it craves, the Happy Meal ban isn't the only one that won't get us results — or at least the results we were trying for.

• When former Mayor Gavin Newsom pulled sugared sodas out of City Hall and other city properties, it sent two interesting messages. First, it indicated our erstwhile mayor felt the men and women who run our city could not be trusted with beverage selection. Second, pitching the replacement of soda with fruit juices as an "anti-obesity move" demonstrated a remarkable lack of nutritional knowledge. While fruit juice is certainly more healthful than soda, it often has more calories — the source of obesity. UCSF critical care nutritionist Irma Ishkanian notes, "If you have juice [instead of soda], you're still having just as many or more calories. It's not really helping with obesity." Net impact on obesity: Nothing.

• In 2008, the city declared that selling tobacco in drugstores alongside medication would give residents the impression that San Francisco thinks cigarettes are healthy — a rationale that was not applied to the liquor, desserts, snack foods, wacky diet pills, and Danielle Steel novels also available. At least not yet. This year, the city extended the cigarette prohibition to Costco-like big box stores, supermarkets, and mom 'n' pop pharmacies. Tobacco, meanwhile, remains readily available in liquor stores and smoke shops (and, for that matter, neighboring cities). A recent survey by the state Department of Public Health, incidentally, revealed that a slightly greater percentage of San Franciscans light up than the California average. Net impact on health: Nada.

• When San Francisco banned plastic grocery bags, it became a worldwide cause célèbre, and allowed residents and politicians to label themselves environmental trailblazers. Sadly, as SF Weekly pointed out in 2009, merely shunting shoppers unthinkingly from plastic bags to paper ones is arguably worse for the environment — creating paper bags is a putrid process, and they take up a great deal of space in landfills. Also, it does nothing to alter consumers' throwaway mentality. To his credit, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, the architect of the bag ban, has acknowledged that San Francisco's legislation is incomplete. He has long pushed for a bag fee, like the one approved in San Jose, that will finally persuade shoppers to bring their own bags and lead to less consumption. Other city politicians, however, have had no qualms embracing San Francisco's problematic ban to burnish their green laurels. Net impact on the environment: Negligible.

San Francisco hasn't yet banned sodium-laden foods like Rice-a-Roni — but banning things has already supplanted it as the San Francisco treat. If it doesn't actually have a significant impact, then why do we do this?

The better question may be "Why not?" These bans may not actually do anything for the public, but they often make voters feel good and politicians feel great. Like Happy Meals, most legislation that pushes the boundaries of government for purely symbolic reasons is fast, cheap, and light-years easier than the drudgery necessary to give children high-quality food daily; provide affordable housing for the middle class; or turn around our beleaguered public transit system. That kind of ordeal takes time and money and requires commitment — on behalf of both politicians and the people. Like a trip to the drive-through, the ease and convenience of symbolic bans can be addictive. Activists and constituents may use their "pester power" to push their elected representatives for more and more.

Not since St. George fought the dragon has there been a more obvious target than McDonald's in San Francisco. Or plastic bags, or Big Tobacco. (At least the dragon would be supported by animal-rights activists.)

With villains like that to rail against, there's no downside to local politicians going after them. On the contrary: Progressives — and nannying moderates — in San Francisco have found a winning strategy. For all that the Chamber of Commerce and its ilk may complain about "crazy" progressive government, they couldn't unseat Ross Mirkarimi or Chris Daly when it came time for re-election, and they supported Gavin Newsom, who has arguably been the banningist politician of all. The last time a sitting supervisor lost his seat was in the Willie Brown era. Nobody has lost an election in San Francisco by going "too far."

"Too far" can even be a good thing for a politician's reputation. After getting his plastic bag ban, Mirkarimi was a sought-after speaker at environmental conferences around the world. After getting his Happy Meal toy ban, Mar was invited to speak at an obesity conference at Yale. If you're already a politician amenable to intrusive government, there's an incentive to being the most intrusive.

By contrast, substantive legislation even less Sisyphean than improving school lunches is maddeningly difficult and doesn't get you big headlines. If the aim is actually to solve a problem, then it's worth it. But if the goal is to remind voters that you're taking on somebody or something they don't like, why do the extra work? A politician just needs to look busy.

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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