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Long-form Journalism

The Forbidden City: How the Happy Meal ban explains San Francisco

By June 23, 2010June 23rd, 2017No Comments

(This originally appeared in SF Weekly, co-written with Joe Eskenazi)

In August 2010, San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar decided that city intervention was needed to help him raise his daughter.

As Mar later told reporters, he was shocked to discover a trove of toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals stashed in her room. Mar was the one taking his daughter to McDonald’s and buying the food — but he said that the “pester power” of a preteen was simply too much for him to withstand on his own. So he proposed that the city ban restaurants from including toys with meals of more than 600 calories that lack agreed-upon amounts of fruits and vegetables.

Mar’s “Healthy Meal Incentive Ordinance” subsequently passed in November by an 8-3 vote in the Board of Supervisors — a veto-proof majority. Barring legal action, the Happy Meal as we know it will be verboten in San Francisco come Dec. 1. Eric Mar’s daughter has been saved.

Both conservative blowhard Bill O’Reilly and left-leaning comedian Lewis Black — and many, many people in-between — were left to wonder “What the hell?” in the wake of San Francisco’s ban. It’s not the first time. In recent years, San Francisco government has passed numerous laws to make us healthier, greener, and — in the city’s eyes — all-around better people. Whether we like it or not. This includes banning the sale of cigarettes in drugstores, and, later, supermarkets; banning plastic bags in large chain stores; banning bottled water in City Hall, and the sale of soft drinks on government property; banning the declawing of cats; making composting mandatory; and forbidding city departments from doing business with companies that were involved in the (pre–Civil War) slave trade, yet haven’t publicly atoned.

The city may yet ban the sale of any pets except fish, and the sale of bottled water during events on public property. Banning foie gras, meanwhile, didn’t catch on, even here. Neither did allowing the city to prosecute anyone who depicts images of animal cruelty if they set foot in San Francisco — essentially the same niche Belgium has carved out for itself with accused war criminals.

San Francisco’s acumen for imposing bans has grown so pronounced that when an anticircumcision zealot began disseminating a petition to criminalize the practice within city limits, observers nationwide didn’t write it off as fringe lunacy but, instead, saw it as just another day at the office in San Francisco.

That ban didn’t make the cut. And San Francisco does not have a monopoly on banning things. But nowhere else can you ban so much with such ease and so little political blowback.

It would take an advanced degree in sanctimoniousness to shed a tear for the loss of your freedom to choose paper or plastic. And will someone really nail himself to the cross of individual liberties over the loss of a plastic My Little Pony toy commemorating the day you were outdebated by a 10-year-old? It would, however, be equally hard to claim that any one of San Francisco’s bans has really had its intended substantive effect on local lives.

But when you put San Francisco’s laundry list of bans alongside New York City’s fatwa against trans fats, Chicago’s slavery disclosure ordinance (they beat us to it), or Seattle’s mandatory composting laws (beat us again, damn it!), it becomes clear that a left-leaning pack of cities is fundamentally changing the role — and pushing the limits — of local government. It’s a movement fueled by the perception that state and federal government are unable or unwilling to tackle big problems like pollution or rampant obesity. So municipalities are marching headlong into the void, attempting to save the world one plastic bag, Big Mac, cigarette butt, or water bottle at a time. And San Francisco is leading the parade.

“The assumption, at least in academic literature, is that cities shouldn’t be doing any of this,” says USF political science professor Corey Cook. “It’s sort of astonishing to me what these cities are doing; it dives headfirst into the question of where the lines for local government are drawn.” City progressives say that’s just the point. “I think that we’re picking up the ball because for whatever reasons, the state and federal systems are not responding to these issues,” Supervisor David Campos says. “We see the need to do something, and are not afraid to do that.”

As is so often the case in San Francisco, everyone has the best of intentions. But now that we’ve reached the point where city officials have meticulously worked out what quantity of multigrains and fruits must be present in a meal in order for a restaurant to earn the privilege of including a toy with it, it’s reasonable to wonder if San Francisco’s elected leaders believe there’s anything they shouldn’t be deciding for you.

City legislators haven’t just saved you from the perils of the Happy Meal. They’ve also supersized the role of local government.

The great irony of San Francisco’s Happy Meal ban is that it’s the legislative equivalent of a Happy Meal. It’s a small and cheap attempt at something substantive; it feels good going down, like consuming a greasy burger and fries. But feeling good and doing good aren’t synonymous. Data from a recent survey of Americans’ fast food choices indicates banning toys from fast food meals won’t help San Francisco’s youth.

A self-funded “restaurant selection study” of 1,200 Americans undertaken by customer satisfaction consultants the CFI Group found that an astounding 32 percent of McDonald’s patrons were eating at the Golden Arches primarily because a child had pushed them to — compared to other fast food outlets, where a kid was the “primary decider” just 7 percent of the time. And yet, among diners with kids in tow, only 19 percent cited a toy as playing any part in their decision to go to McDonald’s — and just 8 percent said the toy was the main reason.

“The city appears to be correct — McDonald’s does have a foothold in leveraging children’s influence,” says Michael Drago, a CFI executive who worked on the survey. “But the toy isn’t the cause of it.” Rather, he says, it’s the untold billions McDonald’s has overtly poured into marketing to children, virtually from day one of its existence. That includes cartoon characters, playgrounds, and, most of all, making its restaurants kid-friendly, convenient places to spend a few dollars and consume a few thousand calories. “McDonald’s, like all quick-service restaurants, dominates not because the food is exceptional but because it’s convenient and affordable,” he continues. “People have a shortage of time and income, and grabbing a burger for them is a fair exchange versus preparing a homemade meal. The more knowledgeable those parents and families are, the more likely that behavior will change. Our data said removal of a toy will not change that behavior.”

McDonald’s, which has protested San Francisco’s legislation as overreaching, is keeping mum on whether its options involve litigation. It’s already on the receiving end of a suit in San Francisco court by a woman named Monet Parham, who claims the chain is engaged in “a highly sophisticated scheme to use the bait of toys to exploit children’s developmental immaturity and subvert parental authority.”

Yet even if yanking the toys out of Happy Meals — by order of a municipality or a judge — keeps kids away from McDonald’s, that’s no guarantee youngsters will be eating responsibly. No health or nutrition expert SF Weekly spoke with saw this as a meaningful move in the fight against childhood obesity. “This is an attention-getting way to draw interest to pediatric obesity,” says UCSF nutritionist Patricia Booth. “Will it have any impact on pediatric obesity? I’d say not.” She notes that it “seems unlikely” that Happy Meals “are contributing that large a percentage of [children’s] calories.” Let us hope.

Booth’s colleague, public health nutrition investigator Barbara Laria, says the Happy Meal ban was a blow against the insidious practice of marketing directly to children — “but just such a tiny, tiny, little step in that direction. … This is a very small piece of legislation.”

A city can do only so much to stem the tide against a national epidemic like pediatric obesity. But, without question, San Francisco could do more than take tiny steps — if it reorganized its priorities. When asked what substantive moves this city could make to help its children eat better, every expert SF Weekly consulted — unanimously and independently — stated the obvious: Improve school lunches.

San Francisco politicos are proud of our schoolchildren’s lunches — “These salad bars are working!” was one of the more memorable lines in former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s epic, 7.5-hour YouTube state of the city address in 2008. To an extent, these salad bars are working. Zetta Reicker, the San Francisco Unified School District’s assistant director of nutrition services, says that 50 percent of students are availing themselves of the salad bars that so titillated Newsom. They are made possible by partial subsidization from the city, to the tune of $250,000.

But that quarter of a million dollars represents just over 1 percent of the district’s school lunch program’s $18 million yearly budget. The other 99 percent of the program isn’t working as well.

In order to serve 22,000 lunches a day, the district can afford to spend just $1 per meal. On such a budget, it’s actually astounding that San Francisco’s students are served food with any semblance of healthfulness at all — its meals are a far cry from the ketchup-and-grease-soaked dreck that likely haunts readers’ memories. Yet “beef sausage pizza,” “French bread cheese pizza,” and “creamy chicken bow-tie pasta” are all on this month’s menu — and all of these entrées arrive, frozen, on a truck from Chicago. Lunch on Jan. 19 — “cheeseburger with baked beans” — beats McDonald’s cheeseburger, fries, and soda on the nutritional front. But it isn’t health food. Maybe that’s because even a Happy Meal costs more than a dollar.

The school district “is doing amazing things with very little,” says Rajiv Bajtia, the city’s director of environmental health. In fact, San Francisco is meeting the USDA’s “Gold Standard” — and Reicker notes that the school lunch program is running at a deficit in order to do so. “Imagine if they had a little more,” Bajtia continues. “Imagine if they had a local cooking kitchen.”

Imagining is about all we can do at this point. Doing something substantive about school lunches would require taking on the political gorgon of overlapping local, state, and federal jurisdictions. Changing the status quo would not be easy — in fact, even maintaining the status quo is challenging. Administering school lunch programs is such a bureaucratic nightmare that San Francisco in 2009 lost out on millions in federal reimbursements by not following to the letter Byzantine rules regarding serving procedure and student eligibility.

Improving school lunches is one of the most intractable problems any politician could hope to take on. Yet any serious attempt to combat childhood obesity is meaningless if school meals are still repositories of freeze-dried fat. Only a public servant who was willing to work tirelessly, raise revenue — and go without glory for a long time — could even potentially make it happen. Perhaps if Eric Mar were president of the school board, he could have undertaken this Herculean task. Except, of course, that he was president of the school board in 2005 and a member from 2001 to 2009 — and didn’t.

Mar, however, did in 2004 help push through a school board resolution banning cafeterias from serving meat irradiated to kill bacteria — even though, per the resolution, “the SFUSD has not in the past used irradiated foods, is not currently using these products, and has no current plans or proposal to use such foods.”

After he became a city supervisor, with no real responsibility over children’s eating habits, Mar decided to make an even more grandiose crusade of childhood health through a mostly symbolic gesture.

Like a Happy Meal, the city’s Happy Meal legislation is cheap — Bajtia doesn’t expect to field many complaint-based inspections of renegade fast food outlets, and San Franciscans won’t be asked to cough up a dime. Like a Happy Meal, it’s convenient — San Franciscans are more likely to proclaim George W. Bush a misunderstood genius than they are to protest McDonald’s being unfairly victimized over the quality of its food. And, like a Happy Meal, our city’s legislation is superficial. In the meantime, it warrants mentioning that not one meal served to San Francisco’s schoolchildren in December or January — the 708-calorie beef dippers; the 711-calorie cheese lasagna; or the 712-calorie chicken nuggets — would qualify under the Healthy Meal Incentive Ordinance to be allowed to come with a toy.

San Francisco is trying to hold McDonald’s to a higher standard than it is willing to hold itself.

Despite San Francisco’s noble intentions, the world remains stubbornly unsaved. In fact, the jury remains out on whether the city’s spate of bans has even made life better for residents. While banning things gets this city the headlines it craves, the Happy Meal ban isn’t the only one that won’t get us results — or at least the results we were trying for.

• When former Mayor Gavin Newsom pulled sugared sodas out of City Hall and other city properties, it sent two interesting messages. First, it indicated our erstwhile mayor felt the men and women who run our city could not be trusted with beverage selection. Second, pitching the replacement of soda with fruit juices as an “anti-obesity move” demonstrated a remarkable lack of nutritional knowledge. While fruit juice is certainly more healthful than soda, it often has more calories — the source of obesity. UCSF critical care nutritionist Irma Ishkanian notes, “If you have juice [instead of soda], you’re still having just as many or more calories. It’s not really helping with obesity.” Net impact on obesity: Nothing.

• In 2008, the city declared that selling tobacco in drugstores alongside medication would give residents the impression that San Francisco thinks cigarettes are healthy — a rationale that was not applied to the liquor, desserts, snack foods, wacky diet pills, and Danielle Steel novels also available. At least not yet. This year, the city extended the cigarette prohibition to Costco-like big box stores, supermarkets, and mom ‘n’ pop pharmacies. Tobacco, meanwhile, remains readily available in liquor stores and smoke shops (and, for that matter, neighboring cities). A recent survey by the state Department of Public Health, incidentally, revealed that a slightly greater percentage of San Franciscans light up than the California average. Net impact on health: Nada.

• When San Francisco banned plastic grocery bags, it became a worldwide cause célèbre, and allowed residents and politicians to label themselves environmental trailblazers. Sadly, as SF Weekly pointed out in 2009, merely shunting shoppers unthinkingly from plastic bags to paper ones is arguably worse for the environment — creating paper bags is a putrid process, and they take up a great deal of space in landfills. Also, it does nothing to alter consumers’ throwaway mentality. To his credit, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, the architect of the bag ban, has acknowledged that San Francisco’s legislation is incomplete. He has long pushed for a bag fee, like the one approved in San Jose, that will finally persuade shoppers to bring their own bags and lead to less consumption. Other city politicians, however, have had no qualms embracing San Francisco’s problematic ban to burnish their green laurels. Net impact on the environment: Negligible.

San Francisco hasn’t yet banned sodium-laden foods like Rice-a-Roni — but banning things has already supplanted it as the San Francisco treat. If it doesn’t actually have a significant impact, then why do we do this?

The better question may be “Why not?” These bans may not actually do anything for the public, but they often make voters feel good and politicians feel great. Like Happy Meals, most legislation that pushes the boundaries of government for purely symbolic reasons is fast, cheap, and light-years easier than the drudgery necessary to give children high-quality food daily; provide affordable housing for the middle class; or turn around our beleaguered public transit system. That kind of ordeal takes time and money and requires commitment — on behalf of both politicians and the people. Like a trip to the drive-through, the ease and convenience of symbolic bans can be addictive. Activists and constituents may use their “pester power” to push their elected representatives for more and more.

Not since St. George fought the dragon has there been a more obvious target than McDonald’s in San Francisco. Or plastic bags, or Big Tobacco. (At least the dragon would be supported by animal-rights activists.)

With villains like that to rail against, there’s no downside to local politicians going after them. On the contrary: Progressives — and nannying moderates — in San Francisco have found a winning strategy. For all that the Chamber of Commerce and its ilk may complain about “crazy” progressive government, they couldn’t unseat Ross Mirkarimi or Chris Daly when it came time for re-election, and they supported Gavin Newsom, who has arguably been the banningist politician of all. The last time a sitting supervisor lost his seat was in the Willie Brown era. Nobody has lost an election in San Francisco by going “too far.”

“Too far” can even be a good thing for a politician’s reputation. After getting his plastic bag ban, Mirkarimi was a sought-after speaker at environmental conferences around the world. After getting his Happy Meal toy ban, Mar was invited to speak at an obesity conference at Yale. If you’re already a politician amenable to intrusive government, there’s an incentive to being the most intrusive.

By contrast, substantive legislation even less Sisyphean than improving school lunches is maddeningly difficult and doesn’t get you big headlines. If the aim is actually to solve a problem, then it’s worth it. But if the goal is to remind voters that you’re taking on somebody or something they don’t like, why do the extra work? A politician just needs to look busy.

“You have a very attentive political population that has a lot of turnover,” USF’s Cook notes. “That creates an environment whereby elected officials are constantly being expected to perform.” San Francisco politicos “constantly need to remind the voting population about the issues — and that they’re working on them. They have to gravitate toward constantly being perceived as being active on an issue.”

While conservatives may be thrilled to take away other people’s civil liberties, only liberals are enthusiastic about taking away their own. SF State professor Jason McDaniel says as San Franciscans have grown more affluent — with many poorer minorities leaving town — “lifestyle politics issues” have caught on: “I think these kinds of constituents like these kinds of issues — the plastic bag ban, water bottle type issues.”

In San Francisco, those are the issues that are left. A lot of the liberal heavy lifting here has already been done. Are there substantive battles to ensure gay rights this city has not yet fought? We already have restrictive zoning laws; we have programs to give homeless people free housing; we’re leading the nation in support services for people with HIV. Commission on racism? Got that. Animal Welfare Commission? Done. Peak Oil Task Force? Naturally. Ranked-choice voting, public financing of elections, and an ethics commission? Check. Citywide health care plan? We’ve got one.

Certainly more can be done, and sometimes what has been done needs drastic improvement — the city has famously sunk billions into helping the homeless, but can’t quantifiably say it has made things that much better. Essentially, the low-hanging fruit has been picked. If you want to address progressive priorities meaningfully at the city level at this point, that means toiling away on accurate homeless counts, bus-only lanes, or developing measurable criteria for city-funded nonprofits to meet. These are all necessary incremental steps in complicated issues that are slow to move — which, to many voters, can look like a politician is not working at all.

Going after symbolic targets, on the other hand: People notice that. According to McDaniel, waging war against Big Tobacco, plastic bags, or Happy Meals “is a win-win situation for politicians who advocate these things. You don’t have to mobilize large interest groups; you don’t have to get a lot of feet on the ground in campaigns; you don’t have a lot of money to bear. You don’t risk losing votes and you tend to not risk turning off your allies.”

Also, and perhaps most importantly, you don’t have to solve the problem you’re addressing, or even make progress on the issue. You just have to be “active” on it.

Today’s San Francisco legislators are not incapable of authoring substantive laws — Supervisor David Campos’ spirited defense of the city’s sanctuary policies, Tom Ammiano’s establishment of Healthy SF, and Ross Mirkarimi’s re-entry legislation for ex-offenders are all examples. But the pressure to churn out legislation — to be “proactive” — can lead to the path of least resistance: inconsequential and flashy laws. And in San Francisco, we like flashy.

Until progressives and Mary Poppins moderates know they can be voted out of office for not being substantive enough, we can expect more Happy Meal bans. Even if the most effective step the city could take to fight childhood obesity — improving school lunches — is one that doesn’t actually expand the role of government at all.

A government doesn’t have to be progressive to pass a largely symbolic law — or a stupid one. Recently, Oklahoma passed a ballot measure banning the use of Islamic Sharia law in court — even though it never has been and, according to the U.S. Constitution, never could be. The state of Arizona’s immigration law mandating that police demand possible illegal immigrants’ papers is also a case of a jurisdiction supersizing itself.

But these tend to be one-offs. Having passed a stupid, and arguably illegal, law about immigration, Arizona won’t next demand to negotiate treaties with the European Union. Muslim-baiting in Oklahoma may be the voter-pleasing equivalent of McDonald’s-bashing in San Francisco — but only the Sooner State’s lunatic fringe would suggest that this is just the beginning of a governmental movement to lock Muslims out of civic life. In San Francisco, liberal politicians don’t see themselves as passing one-off laws. They see themselves as part of a movement to fundamentally change the role of city government in your lives. No legislator has yet said, “We’ve gone far enough.” No one is even sure what “too far” would be.

Asked whether he was planning a next step, Mar said, “We’re looking at a number of different issues, from the sugar-sweetened drinks and sodas to the zoning of fast food and businesses that people feel don’t contribute to a healthy environment.” He isn’t limiting his options.

When asked if there was anything he saw as not being government’s business, a line into “personal” or “private” lives it should not cross, the man who wanted the government to step in and help him with his daughter’s food choices seemed surprised by the concept. “I’m not sure where I would draw the line. I think that’s an important question,” he said, leaving the distinct impression he hadn’t given it much thought. An aide then abruptly yanked Mar out of the interview for an undisclosed reason before its scheduled end.

Campos, too, was stymied for a moment when asked what boundaries government shouldn’t cross. Unlike Mar, however, he tried to find the line: “I have focused on the issues and the problems that impact my constituency, whether that’s District Nine or the city as a whole. And sometimes there are issues that have a national scope.”

The trouble is that rationale can be used to justify anything. In fact, it already has; San Francisco’s city activism has always been rationalized by the idea that it affects local people. That may be a line, but everything is on one side.

Mirkarimi, who would like to see city government take further steps addressing the use of plastics, the coming headaches of citywide overcrowding, the availability of environmentally sound prescription drug disposal, and preparation for a decline in global oil supplies, acknowledges that the inability of progressives to figure out what is and isn’t government’s business is a problem. Asked where he draws the line, he is both thoughtful and direct. He doesn’t know — and doubts anyone does.

“There is no particular gauge about what is too exotic or strange or symbolic,” he says. “I don’t think anybody has one — in red or blue states.” But, he emphasizes, even in San Francisco, legislators won’t ban just anything. “Do you know there are a hundred more of these [ideas] that are in our e-mail inboxes and hearts and minds that we don’t act on?” He adds that what seems “too much” today is often mainstream tomorrow. “Plastic bag bans are almost passé right now. There is a likelihood that you’re going to start seeing some of these kind of initiatives all over the country.”

This is absolutely true. But it’s Mirkarimi, Campos, Mar, and the other progressives who are proposing a significantly expanded role for city government. If they don’t know where the line is, even in theory, what’s to prevent them from continually crossing it? The intense pressure on San Francisco politicians to look busy, to solve the biggest social problem from the smallest of pulpits, to come up with something new, and innovative, and “cutting-edge” — without accountability for the consequences — is as much a recipe for oppressive laws as bad ones.

There’s no reason to think that if Eric Mar had been told that we can’t ban toys in Happy Meals because that’s not what government does, he’d have instead stepped up to the Gordian knot of school lunches. But there’s probably a reason so much boundary-pushing legislation is so bad. If San Francisco weren’t trying to solve the world’s problems, it might be better at fixing Muni and balancing its budget.

A system in which city supervisors think they can do anything, are pressured to produce, and aren’t held accountable for results is going to churn out an unacceptable amount of legislative Happy Meals.

This city is working on its own version of billions and billions served. But while McDonald’s takes orders, San Francisco gives them.