Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Rant: Why Charging for Happy Meal Toys is Not Going to Solve a Large Problem

I don’t usually get political with my blog because I generally like to not offend people or come across as left-leaning, right-leaning or any type of lean at all.

However, today I might make an exception. I know I’m a little behind on the times but I just read an article in which I learned that San Francisco passed legislation recently to ban giving away toys with high-fat, bad-for-you kids meal like Happy Meals in an effort to cut back on childhood obesity.

Now, while I’m not arguing that childhood obesity is a bad thing, I can’t help but think that the money and effort that’s gone into this legislation is a little…misdirected. Sure, I don’t argue that kids who eat McDonalds on a regular day are heavier than other kids. I’m also not arguing that McDonalds isn’t exactly the healthiest food on the planet.

However, the idea that simply giving away a toy with a meal is why kids eat McDonalds in the first place is just…a little silly. Yes, kids are susceptible to things they see on TV and they do like toys. Thus, to have a meal that comes with a free toy is a nice bonus.

Yet the key word is bonus. You can also use the word treat if you prefer. While I know that there are people and kids out there who love the McDonalds toys and go through the drive-thru just to get the one for the week, if you ever go to garage sales, you’ll see that for the most part, these toys basically end up in 10/$1 bins.

Which is ironic because San Francisco McDonald’s have found a way around the new legislation by, yes, charging 10 cents per toy in addition to the cost of the Happy Meal.

Now, my thoughts (and keep in mind these are just MY thoughts) is that perhaps the toy is not really the problem. Everyone knows that McDonalds is fried, fatty food that can taste really good when you’re really hungry. However, I don’t think I’m wrong to say that those of us who know that’s really bad for us regret eating it once we’ve stuffed our faces with those french fries and cheeseburgers and, if we were really hungry, a Big Mac. After all is said and done, it never tasted as good in hindsight to deserve those extra fat calories we consume.

Still, McDonalds serves a purpose to those of us who do have some sense of food-logic. Even though it’s bad for us, it fills a need. I love french fries. They’re one of my ‘cheat’ foods of choice. However, I don’t have them very often because I do try to be a somewhat healthier eater. Also, they taste way better if you haven’t had them for a while and they’re a rare treat. So, McDonalds can satisfy my french-fry craving. It serves that need for me. Also, if you’re in a hurry, are starving and need to eat before your next activity/engagement starts, the drive-thrus are conveniently placed in order to get a combo meal, pay and get out in a few minutes flat. That’s another purpose that McDonalds serves.

I’d like to think that most of us know McDonalds is bad. When we eat it anyway, it’s not necessarily with shame but maybe a wee bit of guilt that we’re consuming a cheesy mess of carbohydrate laden fatty goodness instead of, say, broccoli or a salad.
I don’t have kids but I have nephews and nieces who like Happy Meals. I know that the toys change once a week. If McDonalds has a series of toys that the kids like, they generally want to go back the next week for the next one. Even I’ve fallen for it before when they had the mini beanie babies a few years ago.

Yet, if you’re a parent/aunt with a sense of food-logic, even though you know you shouldn’t indulge the kid with a Happy Meal, if it’s only once a week, it’s not that terrible. Besides, nowadays, you can substitute fries for apple wedges, soda for milk so if you’re concerned about your kid getting, well, chubby then there are ways to treat them to McDonalds without completely compromising nutrition.

The problem is that there are an awful lot of non-logical food people out there. I’ve watched “Super Size Me”. I’ve watched documentaries on why lower-income families tend to have obese children: It’s far cheaper to stuff them full of cheap food that fills them up than go out and buy healthy food. It’s a sad fact of life. I’ve actually been quite poor in my life. When I lived in L.A., I was very, very hard up for money for the first couple of years. If I didn’t have a coupon, it wasn’t on special or couldn’t buy it in the 99 cent store, I didn’t buy it. I used to make sure I had money in my budget for vegetables and fresh produce because, well, I have that food-logic gene. However, I can also see why parents who have to stretch out very little money to feed their kids opt for the giant box of macaroni and cheese on sale for $1 than paying $1.29 a pound for broccoli which doesn’t provide a whole meal but just a side dish.

Also, the irony of it is that many lower-income families tend to have parents who work hours that aren’t conducive to having time to spend cooking low-calorie, nutritious meals out of their limited pantry. This is where McDonalds steps in. You can buy a Happy Meal for about $3. It fills a kid up. It takes five minutes at most to run through the drive through to get it. If you have to go to work but you also have to feed your kid, it’s a quick, easy solution.

It’s just not very healthy.

I’ve seen articles where the older latchkey kids are left money to go get dinner. If there’s a McDonalds in walking distance, guess where they mostly head? By this time, McDonalds has been introduced into their lives as an acceptable meal choice because it’s most likely what they’ve been eating since they were old enough to chew solid food. It’s a comfort food to them because it’s what they know.

And it’s not just McDonalds. I’m only picking on them because they were the subject of the article I read. Many of the other fast food chains offer similar Kid Friendly Meals: Burger King, Wendys, KFC…etc. Kids grow up with the concept of a kids meal that comes with a toy but it doesn’t mean they only want the meal with a toy. I mean, you don’t see kids refusing to eat their Tyson chicken nuggets and Oscar Meyer wieners at home because they don’t get a toy, do you?

Kids are kids. There are some great kids out there who like healthy food. There are also kids with strong, smart parents who feed their kids right and even get their kids to get healthy snacks as a treat and reward. There are kids that do like Brussels sprouts and broccoli with their hotdogs and pizza. Yet, some kids just don’t like that stuff. I don’t know if it’s genetic. I don’t know if it’s psychological. They just simply don’t like green stuff and only like familiar food. My nephew, for example, is a very fussy eater. He wouldn’t eat turkey at Thanksgiving so with a slight shudder, we served him hot dogs with his trimmings because, well, we wanted him to eat and even though my mum and I know hot dogs are terrible for you, I’d rather see him eat something than nothing. Some of these kids become adults who still haven’t changed tastes. My brother in law is in his thirties- he still only likes hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and chicken nuggets. He doesn’t like salad. He doesn’t like anything green but peas. My old coworker was the same way- she was thirty-three and ate like a five year old boy.

With intervention, I think some of these kids can be helped and taught that not all healthy food tastes bad. Yet, it requires a heck of a lot more than charging 10 cents for a Happy Meal Toy. Perhaps the money and time that was spent passing the legislation to outlaw free toys with greasy kids meals should focus more on the root causes: How can we make kids want to eat healthy food? How can we get parents to see that cheap, quick solutions to feeding kids can be found in other places than fast-food drive thrus? Why does it cost more for a pound of apples than it does for a bag of frozen supermarket-brand french fries? Why are there rarely any coupons for fresh ingredients but tons for processed snacks, canned items and microwave meals?

My point with which I’m almost bludgeoning you is that you can’t try to stop a major problem like obesity by banning a toy with a meal. It’s like sticking your finger in the hole in a boat to stop it sinking or throwing a glass of water on your house when it’s on fire. Sure, it might have a quick effect but in the long term, what’s it really going to do? That house is going to burn and the boat will sink anyway unless someone comes along with a plan to fight the fire or, even better, make the boat harder to sink in the first place.

I’m not a politician and I would never want to be. It’s a hard job. You need to make an impact in a short time so that people feel that you’re worthwhile, that you’ve done something right. In my opinion, the best politicians are the ones that move slower, who dedicate themselves to a cause and fight for it from the ground up. They don’t just come in, slap a band aid on a problem and pat themselves on the back. The world doesn’t work like that- it never has and never will. It’s why I like lobbyists way more than politicians. My good friend Saz, for example, has been working hard on a bill to make button batteries safer due to their deadly nature if swallowed by a child. Now that is a worthy cause. She and her organization, The National Electrical Manufacturer’s Association are working to change something, to make it safer. I salute that. I’d salute San Francisco a lot more if they’d decided to work at helping make kids and parents understand what causes obesity and how to work against it rather than making them pay 10 cents for a toy they can get a few miles away outside city limits for free.

There is a lot more I could rant about or soapbox about but I think this is long enough for one day and I think I’ve made my point. Free toys are only a symbol of what’s causing childhood obesity. You can ban the symbol but the problem remains.

Ok. I’m stepping down off my soapbox now. Really. Besides, I’ve got a sudden craving for McDonalds fries. Ooh, Maybe I’ll see what the toy in the Happy Meal is this week…

Just kidding.

Thanks for reading.

Happy Friday!

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