Toys, Tots and Tyranny by Dr. David Katz

Posted by on Nov 7, 2010 in featured articles, news and happenings | 1 comment

Posted by Dr. David L. Katz at 11/5/2010 8:53 AM CDT
There is a very familiar way of describing exploitation of the vulnerable: it’s like taking candy from a baby.  Can a society that coined this phrase come to accept that the greater exploitation may be handing the candy to the baby in the first place?

Maybe so.

Amidst the tumult of this week’s midterm elections was an advance for public health that may or may not have come to your attention.  The city of San Francisco, following an example set some months back by Santa Clara County to its south- passed a law that prevents fast-food companies from including toys with meals that don’t meet some reasonable nutrition standards related to calories, fat, sugar, and salt.  McDonald’s ‘Happy Meals,’ the inspiration for the law, don’t meet those criteria.

So, in essence, this law takes the toy out of the Happy Meal until or unless McDonald’s can improve its nutritional quality.  In this case, nutritional quality is determined by some relevant guidelines developed at the Institute of Medicine.   For what it’s worth, I consider the nutrition standards imposed loose if anything.  McDonald’s has plenty of room in which to wiggle.

But for now, public statements certainly suggest the San Francisco vote was an unhappy one for the fast food giant.

I can think of some others who will be unhappy about the removal of toys from Happy Meals, too.  The kids, I suppose, who like the toys.  And along with them, adults who see this move as the heavy hand of government.  Government is reaching into a child’s lunch, and taking the toy- if not the candy- from the baby.

That is the basis for opposition to a law such as this, which might otherwise be the prevailing law of the land, rather than the law of San Francisco.  But the objection doesn’t stand up to the meanest scrutiny.

Let’s assume that you see the removal of the toy from the Happy Meal as a case of Big Brother telling you what to do.  How, then, did you view the placement of the toy in the Happy Meal in the first place?

McDonald’s did not consult you to find out if you wanted a toy encouraging your child to prefer a meal of lamentable nutritional quality.  They did not consult any parent.  They may have done consumer testing showing that kids- and thus their parents- are apt to choose such meals, but that’s to find out what’s best for them, not for you.

They did not consult me about the nutritional standards I would recommend for a meal including a toy.  To my knowledge, they did not consult any of my colleagues, either.  And while McDonald’s does have scientists on advisory panels, they are in no way obligated to listen to them- and probably don’t when their advice does not redound to the bottom line.

The toy may seem like a freebie.  But there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and the corollary is, there’s no such thing as a free toy with your lunch either.  McDonald’s put toys in Happy Meals for one reason: to sell more Happy Meals.

And, of course, it’s not just any toy that goes into a Happy Meal.  Generally, it’s a genuinely ‘hot’ toy.  A toy directly linked to the current Hollywood blockbuster.  You know the usual suspects: Shrek, Woodie, Buzz.  Coming soon: toys linked to the imminent Dreamworks movie, MegaMind.

You can bet there is proprietary research in a vault somewhere that shows that kids prefer meals with toys.  You can bet that research also shows the toy in question is more influential when tied in to a popular movie.  You can bet there’s also research to show what percentage of the time parents give in to the wheedling of their child who wants such a meal.

The reason to take up this topic is not because of Happy Meals in San Francisco, but because the principles here are important, and generalizable.

I do understand the resistance: opposition to heavy-handed government.  Those opposed to the toy-free Happy Meal are our defenders against tyranny!

Or are you?

The government in San Francisco, unlike McDonald’s, is accountable to voters.  The government actually needs the support of a majority of citizens to get elected, and thus have the authority to take the toy out of the Happy Meal.  McDonald’s only needed the passive assent of its share holders to put it in.

We are all prone, whether or not we care to admit it, to manipulation by multinational corporations with fortunes to spend on the best thinking Madison Avenue can provide.  Thinking designed to figure out what it takes to get us to buy what they’re selling.  Being manipulated into a lunch choice by McDonald’s and Dreamworks is not exactly the epitome of personal liberty.

I understand that some see tyranny in the removal of the toy from the Happy Meal.  But I think they are missing the point in a rush to judgment.

Removing the toy is the will of parents.  The toy was the tyranny.


Dr. David L. Katz;



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More chili please

Posted by on Nov 5, 2010 in featured articles, lunch time | 2 comments

I love visiting cafeterias, especially on days when we are trying something new. Chili day, today, was new – and the Kindergarten classes were the first to see it.  We had grilled chicken ready as an option, with brown rice and corn bread, butternut squash soup and cauliflower gratin (plus a stocked deli bar). But chili, was first up, and most of them did not take it.

Having tasted the chili already (delicious), I filled a bowl, grabbed a spoon and visited every table. I offered tiny tastes to anyone who was willing. At each of the 8 tables, I had 1-2 takers. Every single one, said it was great! 3 of them asked for a proper bowl serving, others just asked for a couple of tablespoons that I could offer from my sampling bowl. To those who said no thank you, I smiled and said maybe next time.

Then came first and second grade. More students in this group were familiar with chili already, so we had more takers on the first round. Again, I visited all 11 tables, with 1-2 takers at each one. I served up 4 more bowls, and extra spoonfuls all around. One student said it wasn’t his favorite, that it was a little spicy. I thanked him for tasting it and giving me his feedback.

We can’t force anyone to eat anything, and I wouldn’t want to. Chili isn’t for everyone, but goodness if you like it, all the better. Warming, grounding, full of minerals and vitamins and fiber and love. It often, boils down to exposure. If one child is hesitant, but his classmate has a positive experience, he may choose to try it. Or he may choose to wait and try it next time. The look of surprise and delight on a child’s face when she wasn’t expecting to like something, and went out of her way to be adventurous, is awesome. If it takes 20 times of passing it up to get to the moment, when one feels ready to branch out and is delighted – even better. No pressure here. It just naturally gets easier.

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The BAN of the Happy Meal

Posted by on Nov 4, 2010 in featured articles, news and happenings | 272 comments

The premise is pretty simple – we can’t give toys away to kids with their meals, unless the meals are healthy – at least not in San Francisco. Healthy meaning that the meals are less than 600 calories, have less than 640 milligrams of sodium, and have less than 35% of calories from fat with less than 10% from saturated fat (with exceptions for nuts, seeds, eggs or low-fat cheese) and the there be at least a half cup of fruit or three-quarters of a cup of vegetables.

Our country is in the midst of an obesity epidemic, it is refreshing to see San Francisco take the lead on this one. Hopefully, SF is the first of many. Even better, maybe McDonald’s will change-up what they are serving. At Butter Beans, we see children who think they don’t like fruits and vegetables, find they like them – every single day. We are making strides in creating more sustainable food systems across the country with more green food markets and CSA’s and food cooperatives than ever before. But unless this generation of youngsters understand the connection between the food we grow, the food we eat and how this affects our bodies and the lives we are able to lead, our work will not outlive us. Right now, our children – those born after the year 2000 are the first generation not expected to outlive us, their parents. And it all boils down to eating habits.

May New York, and every city in between, follow suit.


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