California Town Bans Toys In Happy Meal

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Parents know the promise of a new toy draws children to fast food kids meal that may not be good for them. Now, these meal toys have been banned in Santa Clara County, California. Host Michel Martin speaks with Ken Yeager, the president of Santa Clara County's board of supervisors, who voted for the measure as a way to combat childhood obesity, and Dr. Sara Cody, from the county's public health department.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Danielle Steele, who has authored and sold something like a gagillion books talks to us about her latest, "Big Girl."

But, first, we have a different take on America's struggle with weight. Now, parents, you know this drill all too well. The kids see a commercial like this on TV...

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

(Soundbite of dolphin)

(Soundbite of seagulls)

(Soundbite of waves)

Unidentified Child: Come into McDonald's for a Barbie in a mermaid tail toy now in your Happy Meal.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And the next thing you know, there's nothing they want more than to go to McDonald's. This marketing strategy has been dubbed pester power. And it was more or less banned this week in Santa Clara County, California. That's the home of Silicon Valley and Stanford University.

Much to the chagrin of fast food companies, the county is forbidding restaurants from giving away toys with meals, exceeding set levels of fat and sodium. Joining us to talk about this unique measure is Ken Yeager, the president of Santa Clara County's board of supervisors who voted for the ban.

Also with us Dr. Sara Cody from the county's public health department. She's a general internist who's worked in public health for almost 15 years and she's closely tracked the county's childhood obesity problem. And I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. KEN YEAGER (President, Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors): Good to be here.

Dr. SARA CODY (General Internist, Santa Clara County Public Health Department): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Supervisor Yeager, I should mention that the bill is still under consideration. There's a kind of a next step, but if the bill is passed again, as it's anticipated, it'll go into effect from 90 days. So I wanted to ask how you all came up with this idea of focusing on the toys in these fast food meals.

Mr. YEAGER: Well, it really was a group effort. Many of us at Santa Clara County have been working on childhood obesity issues for a long time. And all we saw was that the numbers kept getting greater and greater and the cost to the taxpayers in Santa Clara County just kept on increasing. So we were just thinking of what we could do.

And we were aware of this sort of pester power that you referred to of kids just sort of, you know, nagging their parents wanting to go for the toy, nothing to do with the meal, everything had to do with the toy. And so we decided, well, let's see if we can break that connection between the toy and the unhealthy meals.

MARTIN: Dr. Cody, talk to us about how much of a concern is childhood obesity in your particular community. We've been focusing, as many people know at NPR on the whole question of the obesity crisis in America generally, but tell us about your community.

Dr. CODY: Well, our community is like many communities across the country. And despite the fact that Santa Clara County was recently ranked one of the healthiest counties in California, we have a real obesity epidemic here. And in fact one in four of our children are above their ideal body weight either overweight or obese.

MARTIN: Now, the ban may only apply to a small number of businesses, that this story, as you might imagine, has been getting a lot of attention from people around the country as well as the big players in the restaurant industry. The California Restaurant Association put out a statement quoting their president saying: 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.

So, Supervisor Yeager, tell us about that. I mean, what about that?

Mr. YEAGER: Well, certainly the fast food industry has been very aggressive in fighting this, putting out full-page ads and being very critical of our effort. But, you know, at some point, the fast food industry has to take responsibility for its actions. The meals that they are feeding these kids are far and beyond the number of calories that are necessary in a daily meal for these kids and the fat content and the sugar content. You can just go on and on.

And we're saying that the toys can certainly be given out as long as they meet certain nutritional standards. But at some point I think the public needs to really call into question the actions of the fast food industry and say why do you need to have these meals be so fatty and so high in calorie, all which just leads to more childhood obesity.

MARTIN: So you're saying change the meal.

Mr. YEAGER: Absolutely. And the ordinance is very clear. We don't say that you can't hand out toys, but we set out certain nutritional guidelines that have to be met before the toys can be given out.

MARTIN: Well, what about the argument, though, that if a parent wants to use this as an incentive, say, if you get a certain report card, you can go. If you clean up your room every day for a week, you can go. And a parent says, I'm not feeding my child this every day and if I want to give this as a treat just like, you know, you wouldn't ban Hershey bars because you don't want people eating them, you know, for a meal, why should the government be sort of dictating what each individual meal is filled with?

And Supervisor Yeager, Ill ask you first, and then Dr. Cody, Ill ask you the same question.

Mr. YEAGER: I mean, youre absolutely right. On a case by case basis, you know, parents are sort of doing what they can and we can certainly understand why you would want to treat your kid to a, you know, a particular toy if theyve done something right. But I think its more important to look at sort of the collective action. In many of our neighborhoods, particularly poor Hispanic neighborhoods, there are nothing but fast food restaurants. And so, many parents go there on their way home. Its cheap. Its quick. And we're finding that the childhood obesity rates in those neighborhoods are just continuing to skyrocket. So, if you look at overall the effect that the industry is having on kids you see that its being its very detrimental.

MARTIN: Dr. Cody, tell us, if you would, a bit more why these particular meals in your view are so detrimental. Because in the kids' meals, you know, the portions are not that large. I mean, the kinds of meals that contain these toys, the portions are rather small. The industry is saying, well, they do offer healthy options. You could have apple slices instead of fries. You can have, you know, water or juice instead - or milk or low-fat milk, in particular, instead of soda. So tell us exactly why you feel that stuff like this is so necessary. Whats in the meals that you think is such a big deal?

Dr. CODY: Well, I think there's a couple of things. One is, I think the response from the restaurant industry indicates that weve really hit on something thats important. And we're not saying that parents can't choose what their children eat. And, in fact, what we're trying to do is support children and their choices.

And I think that certainly parents and caregivers play the most important role in teaching children about healthy behaviors and what they eat. What we're trying to do is support the parents by providing an environment to support good choices. So, a parent who wants to, you know, has an arrangement with their child or wants to provide a reward thats a particular treat certainly can do that.

All we're doing is severing the link between the toy and meal that doesnt meet basic nutritional standards. So this is really an effort to support the parents by improving the environment and removing those barriers to them to offer a healthy choice and maybe even this will provide incentives for restaurants and particularly fast food restaurants to amplify their menu options that are healthy.

MARTIN: Supervisor Yeager, do have any concern that some of these industries will just pull out of your community entirely? As you mentioned, there are some neighborhoods in which fast food restaurants are the only restaurants available. So are you at all concerned that theyll leave?

Mr. YEAGER: Oh, I think thats very, very doubtful. They're all making a lot of money. And what we just want them to do is just to be better corporate citizens. You know, why not cut down on the amount of sodium? Why not cut down on the amount of fat and the amount of calories? If you go in now because of menu labeling, you know, you can see how many calories are in some of these meals.

And I think, most importantly, we have to as a nation take childhood obesity more seriously. And Dr. Cody could really give you the entire statistics. But, you know, one in four child is overweight or obese and we know that 70 percent of those children will grow up to be obese or overweight as adults and they will have chronic illnesses for the rest of their lives which will have a great impact on them.


Mr. YEAGER: But also on the health care programs that we're trying to initiate here in the city.

MARTIN: Sure. And Ken Yeager, finally before we let you go, we have 15 seconds. Do you have kids and do you take them to McDonalds?

Mr. YEAGER: I have many nieces and nephews and I do not take them to McDonalds.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Strong man there. Ken Yeagers president of Santa Clara County's board of supervisors. He joined us from Newport Beach, where hes attending a conference. Dr. Sara Cody from the Santa Clara County's public health department joined us from her office in San Jose. And I thank you both for being with us.

Dr. CODY: Thank you.

Mr. YEAGER: Thank you.

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