The Unhappy Meal: Santa Clara looks to ban unhealthy children’s meals with toys

An issues that been appearing off and on in the news for years has been childhood obesity in the U.S.  Kids in the U.S. eat unhealthy foods and generally weigh too much resulting in health problems.  The argument is that fast food restaurants target children with the marketing thereby encouraging them to eat unhealthy food.  Fast food restaurants spent over $1.6 billion in 2006 to target children.  One ploy is to put toys in the meals designed for children.  Children want the toys, children nag their parents, parents buy the meals, children eat unhealthy meal, and children become unhealthy.  We can argue with the links in this chain of logic but it is the fundamental argument in this case.  The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors considered a proposal that “the proposal would forbid the inclusion of a toy in any restaurant meal that has more than 485 calories, more than 600 mg of salt or high amounts of sugar or fat. In the case of McDonald’s, the limits would include all of the chain’s Happy Meals — even those that include apple sticks instead of French fries” (latimes.com/business/la-fi-happy-meals-20100427,0,6290206.story).

The idea is that the proposal would pressure fast food restaurants into creating more nutritious meal options for children.  A key concern is all the sodium, sugar, and fat that can be found in existing children’s meals.  Here is summary of the proposal from its creator:

“Ken Yeager, the Santa Clara County supervisor who is behind the effort, says the toys in kids’ meals are contributing to America’s obesity epidemic by encouraging children to eat unhealthful, fattening foods.  ‘People ask why I want to take toys out of the hands of children,’ said Yeager, who is president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. “But we now know that 70% of the kids that are overweight or obese will be overweight or obese as adults. Why would we want to burden anybody with a lifetime of chronic illness?’” (latimes.com/business/la-fi-happy-meals-20100427,0,6290206.story).

Every issue has at least two sides.  So who is arguing for unhealthy food that will children obese?  The answer is the California Restaurant Association (CRA) who see the issue differently.  Here is how their interpretation of the issue:

“’Ultimately, parents decide what their children eat and whether a meal includes a toy or not – that is the role of a parent,’ the CRA’s President + CEO Jot Condie said. ‘Based on our survey of the county’s residents, parents prefer to continue making those decisions, as opposed to following Supervisor Yeager’s proposal that would take that choice away. Saving us from our kids is overreaching. Most parents can resist their children’s pressure to get a toy. The county government does not need to serve as the parent of the parents.’

Most restaurants offer healthy options, such as fruit, sandwiches, milk, juice and water with kids’ meals. The variety of offerings continues to grow, but ultimately consumers want a choice in what items they can select for a kids’ meal when dining at a restaurant. Seventy-three percent of Santa Clara County residents agree that they should have the option of purchasing a meal at a restaurant that includes a toy or a gift.

“The restaurant industry works with policymakers every day to craft serious, comprehensive solutions to public health issues, including childhood obesity,” Condie said (http://www.calrest.org/go/CRA/news-events/newsroom/poll-santa-clara-county-residents-against-toy-ban/).

The CRA took their message to the people of Santa Clara through newspaper advertisements.  The CRA also conducted a poll and found that 80% of residents felt lawmakers should not be involved with this issue.  The poll had a sampling error no more than 4.1 percentage points with a 95 percent level of confidence.  However, we do not know the exact wording of the question in the survey used for the poll (http://www.calrest.org/go/CRA/news-events/newsroom/poll-santa-clara-county-residents-against-toy-ban/). 

While in isolation the toy ban does not seem like much of an issue.  It is a limited proposal covering a very small geographic area.  However, the larger issue of childhood obesity in the U.S. is a serious concern.  Moreover, the childhood obesity issue is repeatedly being linked to fast food restaurants so there is reason for the restaurant industry to be concerned.

Questions to Consider

  1.  How viable is the CSR response that food choice is the responsibility of parents?
  2. How do the marketing actions of restaurants undercut parental decision making about what their children eat?
  3. What are the ethical considerations of marketing to children?  Should restaurants adopt a code governing marketing to children that covers the healthiness of the food being promoted?
  4. Which side of the issue would you support and why?
  5. How was each side using public relations in this issue management effort?
  6. What is the benefit of the CRA managing the issue rather than individual fast food restaurants?
  7. How might the issue of childhood obesity be a serious threat to the reputations and sales of fast food restaurants?
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