Calif. County May Ask Kids to Choose Between Fries and Toys

In Response to Childhood Obesity, Santa Clara Considers Ban on Giveaways for Meals High in Calories and Sodium

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CHICAGO ( -- Reasoning with a child, especially when toys are involved, is a tough proposition. But California's Santa Clara County might be about to make it tougher with a proposal that takes on major kids-meal franchises at fast feeders such as McDonald's by banning toy giveaways with meals high in calories and sodium -- a move that could lead to regulation in other places in the country.

Kids could still score toys by choosing the lowest-calorie option.
Kids could still score toys by choosing the lowest-calorie option.
"This ordinance levels the playing field," Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Ken Yeager said in a statement. "It helps parents make the choices they want for their children without toys and other freebies luring them toward food that fails to meet basic nutritional standards."

As a state, California has adopted health regulations faster than other areas. California has already banned trans fat at restaurant chains and mandated calorie counts. Earlier this month, Santa Clara County also proposed a ban on "single-use" carryout bags.

The proposed guidelines for healthier options require kids' meals to have fewer than 485 calories and 600 mg of sodium to come with a toy.

Health experts applauded the move, but say it doesn't go far enough. Attaching rewards to food, they claim, is inherently problematic. "Food should be fun, but we have to make health the incentive rather than the toy," said Christine Gerbstadt, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. Also a Santa Clara native, Ms. Gerbstadt noted that the area has a special incentive for instituting these regulations because of its high Hispanic population. "The obesity rate among the group is higher than the average Caucasian population, as well as incidences of diabetes and hypertension," she said.

One in four seventh, ninth and 11th grade students in Santa Clara County is either overweight or obese, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey. And one in three low-income children between the ages of two and five in Santa Clara County's Child Health and Disability program are either overweight or obese.

Michele Simon, author of "Appetite for Profit," alleged that kids' meals create a slippery slope. "Kids are nagging their parents incessantly for toys for McDonald's and then the whole family gets dragged in and everyone is eating unhealthy," she said.

Additional guidelines
In addition to the rules for full kids meals, there are also guidelines for individual food items -- nothing over 200 calories and no drinks over 120 calories (not exactly health food). And children could still score toys in fast-food meal deals by ordering the lowest-calorie options: four-piece chicken nuggets, apple dippers and 1% low-fat milk at McDonald's, or chicken nuggets, mandarin orange slices and low-fat milk at Wendy's . At Burger King, kids could chose from several options in their Kids Meals, such as a hamburger, apple "fries" and orange juice.

These lower-calorie options, however, are a development of the past few years. It's important to note that the more traditional kids-meal options, with cheeseburger, fries and a Coke, at any of the chains bring the meal above 700 calories. But it remains to be seen if the regulations would have any teeth. The proposed ban includes only unincorporated Santa Clara County, and not the city of San Jose. The area in question doesn't even have a McDonald's, said company spokesman Walt Riker. Burger King has one location in unincorporated Santa Clara County, which would thereby be subject to the regulation if the law is passed.

"McDonald's is disappointed with the council's decision," Mr. Riker said in a statement. "Concerning this particular ordinance, parents tell us they want to have the right to make their own decisions. Our customers are smart, and they will continue to make choices that are right for them."

McDonald's has advertised only its healthier Happy Meals for several years. Mr. Riker added that more than 100 million Happy Meals have been ordered with apples, instead of fries, since 2008.

The board returns for a final vote May 11.

This story has been updated.

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