Should the U.S. Crack Down on Happy Meals?

San Francisco is decreeing that restaurants can't put free toys in meals with too many calories or too much sugar or fat. Will that get more kids to order apple slices instead of fries?

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Last week's elections may have seemed like a repudiation of liberalism, but the San Francisco board of supervisors appeared unfazed. The city's governing body went ahead and fired a bunker buster into the Happy Meal, decreeing that restaurants cannot put free toys in meals that exceed set thresholds for calories, sugar or fat. Libertarians are livid, parents are peeved and even advocates of healthier fast food think the ban will be counterproductive. "One of the reasons why the healthy-eating lobby still meets with such resistance is that it is seen as a conspiracy of killjoys and nanny-statists trying to force us to give up everything fun and delicious and to eat wet dishcloths instead," notes Henry Dimbleby, whose health-minded Leon chain in Britain serves kids' meals with a side of rice and peas along with a badge, sticker and activity book. "Now they want to steal our children's toys too?"

Taking the toys out of Happy Meals does seem intrusive, even to many liberals. (A common reaction to the city legislators' ban: "Are they even allowed to do that?") On the other hand, it's tough and pragmatic in that it relies on McDonald's desire to make money, rather than on, say, the hope that kids will choose to eat apple slices or raw carrots while everyone else snarfs down French fries.

The problem with the San Francisco approach is not that it won't work — it probably will. If you are trying to keep kids from eating big, fattening meals, so as not to become big and fat themselves, arm-twisting McDonald's into making its Happy Meals less caloric is one means by which to do so.

No, the problem with the ban is that it doesn't go far enough. America's tots aren't getting supersized simply by eating Happy Meals. In a recent nutrition commentary that is making waves in food-politics circles, in part because NYU's Marion Nestle posted excerpts of it on her blog, University of São Paulo professor Carlos Monteiro makes the case that "the rapid rise in consumption of ultra-processed food and drink products, especially since the 1980s, is the main dietary cause of the concurrent rapid rise in obesity and related diseases throughout the world." And reversing that trend will be a lot harder than making Happy Meals a little less happy.

But still, you have to start somewhere, and I understand why the San Francisco supervisors picked Happy Meals as their beachhead. I was an obese child, and precisely for the reasons progressives point to: I ate hamburgers far too often. My parents, like many well-meaning adults back then and now, would have preferred me to gobble down fruit and whole-grain bread, just as they would have preferred me to play with handcrafted birch-wood toys instead of Six Million Dollar Man figurines. But I wailed like a car alarm until I got what I wanted. The toys aren't the main reason kids love Happy Meals. They love the packaging more than anything else. Everything comes in a box, and it all belongs to them. As a kid, you don't have to poach fries from your parents and you get a toy and something to read or draw on. It's a little package of pleasure, just for you. That's how we eat in the U.S., and we'd rather get fat eating things our way than eating healthier foods some other way.

Again and again, efforts to promote fresh fruit and produce in low-income urban areas have failed for the simple reason that Americans have been brainwashed. We have been conditioned, starting in utero, to prefer high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar concoctions rather than their less exciting, more natural culinary cousins. One of my favorite recent examples of American food stubbornness occurred this spring when British food personality Jamie Oliver, seeking to teach the children of West Virginia to despise chicken nuggets, showed them how horrible the process of making them was. After producing a nasty pink paste of ground bone and tendons and skin, which he then shaped, breaded and fried, he asked who would still eat the finished product. Every little hand shot up.

Why? Because as Americans, we like highly processed food. It was invented to please us. Cheap flavor bombs will always trump healthier alternatives. Dangling a Transformer or Beanie Baby or some other toy du jour in front of a kid may help balance the playing field at least a little. But why can't cheap, processed food be made healthier? Is that really impossible? Or is it just too expensive? And why are eight people in San Francisco the only ones who seem willing to step up and do something unpopular to address such a serious issue? That's the real question in this very packaged McControversy, and it's the one we should all be asking.

Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders. Taste of America, Ozersky's food column for TIME.com, appears every Wednesday.