The War on…Happy Meals?

The city of San Francisco enacted a law that went into effect on November 30, 2011. It bans any chain restaurant (i.e McDonalds) from providing a toy with a meal that the overlords of that city decree does not meet an arbitrary nutrition standard. Clearly McDonalds is attempting to ensnare unsuspecting children with toys that are as irresistible as the One Ring was to Gollum. Parents’ and children’s brains are completely incapacitated by these toys and they are unable to exercise any free will and thus have no choice but to purchase a Happy Meal. Yes, I’m being sarcastic. I’m not even going to delve into the most obvious discussion here, i.e. that this is a prime example of nanny-statism at its worst, that government can interfere in transactions between a willing buyer and a willing seller because condescending politicians believe it is morally acceptable to substitute their preferences for that of the citizens.


Clearly McDonalds is attempting to ensnare unsuspecting children with toys that are as irresistible as the One Ring was to Gollum.


Although McDonalds has skirted the ban by charging 10¢ for the toy the underlying issue here has been overlooked in the media. They weren’t trying to stop McDonalds from providing a toy. They set standards for fat and sugar content, which if met, would permit a toy. So the authors of the law, like the unsuspecting chess player who overlooks his own vulnerability while attacking, thought it would force McDonalds to change the content of the meal. They failed. The toy remains a meal incentive to not only the children but also the parents as well, who are now guilt tripped into buying the meal since the toy money goes to charity. Touché McDonalds!

Obviously the instigators of this law don’t have children, because as any parent will tell you, children will not eat what they don’t like. Period. No kid is going to eat a happy meal populated with apple slices, carrots and yogurt no matter how many toys it comes with. If the promoters of this law got their way, here’s what would happen: the child takes the toy, nibbles on one thing and then throw the rest of the meal out. This outcome mirrors the primary problem with the school lunch program. Let me explain. If school lunches meet federal nutrition guidelines then the meal is partially paid for (subsidized) by the government. So a $5 meal becomes a $2 meal. Great. The only problem is that kids throw away the stuff they don’t like. So what could stop them from throwing out food? Simple, just let the kids pick what they want. Problem is, if they do that then the meal no longer meets federal guidelines, so it can’t be subsidized. Now the meal is $5 with LESS food. It’s cheaper to buy the whole thing, eat what you want and throw away the rest then to just buy and eat what you want. But like a stubborn 3 year old, government stamps its foot down and insists we continue on the same failed course because it is “best”. When will they ever learn that you can’t alter human behavior by mandate?

Government should not subsidize meals for those that can afford it. The program has slowly morphed from alleviating starvation among poor students, to subsidized food for all students, to nutrition nannies that incentivize wasting food. The argument that we must subsidize all meals is that if we didn’t then poor students might be ridiculed by their peers (the same logic was also used to force TARP money onto banks that didn’t need it). So in order to protect against possible hurt feelings we as a country subsidize all meals to the tune of $16 billion/year. The least we can do is alter the program so as not to incentivize discarding thousands of tons of food every day across this country. Provide healthy options and let the kids pick what they want. To continue doing otherwise is blowing against the wind.