NYC Happy Meal Ban: Empty Posturing or a Good Idea?

Happy Meal
Image: Christina Kennedy

Brooklyn Supper doesn’t assume that you care about food regulations in New York City as much as we do, but everyone likes to get fired up about a Happy Meal ban story, right? Not to be outdone by San Francisco, whose city council moved to regulate Happy Meals in 2010, a New York City council member has proposed a ban on toys with meals that are unhealthy. So how would the proposed ban affect Happy Meals?

While it’s being touted as ban on Happy Meals, the kids’ meal at pretty much every fast food restaurant would be affected by the ban. In fact, not all Happy Meals would be covered. Specifically, the ban would apply to meals that have more than 500 calories, 600 milligrams of sodium and 35 percent of calories from fat, excluding nuts, seeds, and nut butters. You could still get the Littlest Pet Shop figure if you ordered the McNuggets with apple slices instead of fries or the hamburger with apple slices and a Sprite or juice (too much sodium in the milk). The cheeseburger and the fries would both be out. But if you go to McDonald’s and don’t get the fries, what’s really the point?

I’ve thought long and hard about this and I’m no closer to having a rooting interest in this controversy. On the one hand, the proposed law is highly unlikely to have an affect on childhood obesity. As McDonald’s point out, kids eat about 90 meals a month. If a lot of those are fast food, the rest of them probably aren’t that healthy either. And if you don’t want your kids to eat fast food, don’t take them to fast food restaurants. In New York City, especially, you’re never that far from better options.

On the other hand, I think marketing to children is generally a pretty dubious thing to do. Adults are presumably wise enough to know they’re being manipulated and can weigh the costs and benefits of their actions (even if in practice we often don’t). Kids, on the other hand, aren’t generally known for their sagacity. Marketing to kids basically boils down to tricking someone who doesn’t know any better into buying something bad for them by pitting them against the person who is supposed to be looking out for them. So it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the fast food industry either.

I guess in the end I’m opposed to the ban because it’s just empty posturing that distracts people from taking concrete steps toward fighting childhood obesity. But if it does pass, I won’t lose much sleep over it. What do you think?

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