Santa Clara’s Happy Meal Toy Ban Carefully Watched

SAN JOSE — Taking a somewhat nontraditional approach to the childhood obesity issue, a new Santa Clara County ordinance seeks to make toys and other promotions served up with high-calorie children’s meals a thing of the past. Although proponents and opponents agree that the new law by itself won’t solve the obesity problem, it has clearly won a place in the arsenal of the campaign to keep the country’s children slim and fit.

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.  

“When fast food restaurants advertise their kids meals, it’s not about the ‘yummy tummy’ burger, it’s about the toy, and those toys are luring kids into eating food packed with calories, sodium and fat,” said Supervisor Ken Yeager, who sponsored the measure. “This ordinance breaks the link between unhealthy foods and prizes.” 

The Santa Clara Ordinance was approved on the same day first lady Michelle Obama’s “White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity” released a report with 70 recommendations to combat obesity. Both signal a widespread cultural health shift similar to the anti-tobacco movement of the past several decades.

Ordinance Details

The Santa Clara ordinance — originally approved in April and then revised and passed again this month on a slim 3-2 vote  — prohibits restaurants from offering prizes with any meal containing more than 485 calories and 600 milligrams of sodium.

A McDonald’s Happy Meal with four Chicken McNuggets, a small portion of fries and a serving of 1% low-milk contains 520 calories and nearly 700 milligrams of sodium, meaning that a toy cannot be offered unless the meal’s calorie and sodium counts are reduced.  

The ban covers only unincorporated areas of the county, which include about a dozen fast food chains and several family-owned restaurants.  Restaurants face fines of up to $1,000 per violation.

Backlash

The Santa Clara ordinance has drawn criticism from parents and restaurants.  

In a letter to the county Board of Supervisors, parent Donna Garber wrote, “Do you really think the government needs to make these decisions for the citizens you represent? Are we not capable of deciding what we will eat and where we will take our children? Back off.”    

Restaurants argued they didn’t have enough advance warning to participate in the debate. As a compromise to gain support, the board agreed  to postpone implementing the measure for 90 days to give the restaurant industry, which opposed the plan, time to come up with an alternative “healthy-meal” program. “It would be best if the industry would make these changes on its own,” Yeager said, adding, “The health risks are too great to do nothing.”

The California Restaurant Association, which represents about 22,000 members, believes it’s a little late to extend the olive branch. “We should have been brought in from the beginning,” said Amalia Chamorro, director of local government affairs for the association.  

“We found out about the proposal just before it came to the board so we weren’t involved in the process,” Chamorro added. “We want to be part of the solution. But simply restricting toys with meals doesn’t further the conversation about childhood obesity.”

As far as whether the group would take legal action against the ordinance, Chamorro said, “We are currently considering all options, but haven’t made any determinations yet.”

A Potential Model

Meanwhile, communities throughout California and the nation are eyeing the Santa Clara ordinance with great interest. Yeager said he’s read that Chicago and New York City are closely monitoring the issue. San Francisco has contacted Santa Clara about the ordinance.

Rajiv Bhatia, San Francisco’s environmental health director, said, “There are a range of activities that can take place to make fast food healthier. This is just one key component.”  He added that while there currently is no legislative proposal on the table in San Francisco, “We are thinking about it. Our county is looking at a number of proposals, including voluntary efforts by the restaurant sector. This isn’t something where industry and public health have to butt heads. We can work collaboratively,” Bhatia said.

San Francisco became the first community to pass a law requiring restaurants to include nutritional information on their menus. In 2008, that measure was pre-empted when California passed a law requiring such information to be displayed in restaurants around the state.

Bhatia predicted the same outcome for the Santa Clara ordinance. He said he would like to see it go beyond chain establishments, noting that only 10% of restaurants in San Francisco are part of a chain.

Saratoga Mayor Kathleen King, mother of five children, said she agrees with the ban. “I have a 13-year-old special-needs child who is particularly influenced by the toy giveaways at fast-food restaurants.  I was shocked to learn how many calories kids’ meals have.”

King said her small, well-to-do city probably wouldn’t follow Santa Clara County’s lead any time soon. “We’re taking a wait-and-see approach. We can’t afford a lawsuit.” King is also the executive director of the Santa Clara Family Health Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that raises funds to give needy children access to quality health insurance. She said one of her mandates is to raise money to fight childhood obesity so the foundation has programs to help educate families.

A New Tool in the Anti-Obesity Kit

King and other proponents of the Santa Clara ordinance acknowledge that the toy ban isn’t going to solve the obesity problem, but say that it’s one of the tools in the kit. Glennah Trochet, Sacramento County’s public health officer, said there are no plans now to enact a toy ban in her county, but added that “it’s a creative way to address a serious issue.”

Trochet said, “We need to develop an environment to make good choices easier choices.”

Yeager said he’s optimistic other communities will follow Santa Clara’s lead, but most will probably wait until the ordinance takes effect to see how it plays out.

“We hope this is the start of something much larger,” Yeager said.

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