American kids are fat. According to Ken Yeager, President of the Santa Clara Country Board of Supervisors, nearly one in four children in Santa Clara County is overweight or obese. "In certain ethnic populations," he says, "it's one in three.” Obesity has become a national security risk, too: We have supersized a generation of kids to the point that our military is unsure if we’ll have enough soldiers who are fit enough to fight. Even more shocking, parents across the nation are learning that, for the first time in U.S. history, their children are expected to live shorter lives than they did.
Yeager isn’t alone in believing we’ve reached a crisis level in childhood obesity. He is alone, however, in passing a new law that makes it illegal for restaurants to peddle toys to kids with their fast-food meals. A 2008 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found 12 restaurants with kids’ meals that exceed the recommended caloric limits for children; ten out of those 12 also offer toys with those meals. Toys and prizes are effective lures. "If they weren't," says Yeager, "the industry would not be spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year on these gimmicks. We know parents are trying to make healthy choices for their children, so we wanted to find a way to help level the playing field for them.”
Is it possible that simply taking away the toys will make children less covetous of their chicken nuggets? Yeager thinks so. “They use the latest, must-have toys to entice children. The kids then pester their parents to take them to the restaurant, and we all know how effective a child can be in wearing down their parents to get a toy they want. Once in the door, their young palates get hooked on the high-fat, high-sugar foods.”
“We think it is unfair for parents to compete with the draw of prizes for unhealthy food while they are trying to make healthy choices for their children," he adds. "We do not want to tell restaurants what they can serve or tell parents what they can buy. This ordinance merely requires restaurants to meet basic nutritional standards for food they are using toys to entice children toward."
After all, childhood obesity is not just a health issue, but also an economic one as well. “Santa Clara County spends hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars each year treating obesity-related illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular disease," says Yeager. "Local need was definitely the motivating factor. I am, though, aware that this is a national crisis… It would be wonderful if this ordinance could spread throughout the nation.”
Yeager is optimistic that might happen. He has already been contacted by supervisors in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and Orange County about the measure. And after local governments in Santa Clara and San Francisco began requiring restaurants to post nutritional information at the point of sale, it was expanded to a national law, Yeager points out.
But don’t expect the multi-billion-dollar fast food industry to sit idly by. "The restaurant industry is notoriously resistant to change," he says, pointing out that in the run-up to the vote by the Board of Supervisors, the California Restaurant Association "took out full-page ads in our local newspaper decrying the measure. When we adopted our menu-labeling ordinance two years ago, they sued the County to block its passage. Now, the restaurant industry touts menu labeling as an important service they provide to their customers.”
So, would a meal be happier for kids if it came with fruits and salads instead of nuggets and corn syrup? Could kids be incentivized to associate toys with real food? It’s certainly a question weighing on America—one we can’t afford to put off any longer.