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Marion Nestle on “Who Decides What Your Children Eat?”

thoughts on a Happy Meal toy ban

Becky and I covered the “Happy Meal Toy Ban” in San Francisco pretty extensively last year as it moved forward through the system and was finally enacted. While a lot of folks had a problem with the government stepping into the role it stepped into (“telling people what food they should eat”), it really wasn’t stepping into this role at all. (It’s been sitting in this role for ages.)

Marion Nestle of Food Politics joined in on a Harvard School of Public Health forum on “who decides what your children eat” back in the middle of the San Francisco deliberations and drama and goes into this topic in much more detail. Note that she also emphasizes the point that the ban isn’t even a ban or restriction on what you or your children can eat — it’s specifically about predatory marketing. If you offer people a million dollars to do something illegal (steal, speed, or even kill), a lot more people are going to do it than would otherwise. It may not be a perfect analogy, but it gets the point across that offering and marketing pretty toys for kids if you buy a cheap fast food meal results in more people doing something that is not good for their children. (You know how kids are and how obsessed they are with toys.)

Here’s Nestle’s comment in the forum, via her blog:

I’m surprised at the mayor’s comment that “parents, not politicians, should decide what their children eat,” because the San Francisco ordinance is not about the food. It’s about the toys.

Nobody is stopping parents from ordering Happy Meals for their kids. But as everyone knows, kids only want Happy Meals because of the toys.

The idea that government has no role in food choice is ludicrous. The government is intimately involved in food choices through policies that make the cost of some foods—those containing subsidized corn or soybeans, for example—cheaper than others.

It is not an accident that five dollars at McDonald’s will buy you five hamburgers or only one salad. It is not an accident that the indexed price of fruits and vegetables has increased by 40% since the early 1980s, whereas the indexed price of sodas has decreased by 30%. Right now, agricultural policies support our present industrialized food system and strongly discourage innovation and consumption of relatively unprocessed foods.

Agricultural policies are the results of political decisions that can be changed by political will. If we want agricultural policies aligned with health policies—and I certainly do—we need to exercise our democratic rights as citizens and push for changes that are healthier for people and the planet.

Yes, individuals are the ultimate arbiters of food choice.

But our present food system makes unhealthful eating the default. We need to be working for government policies that make healthy eating the default. The San Francisco ordinance is a small step in that direction.

I love these sentences: “It is not an accident that five dollars at McDonald’s will buy you five hamburgers or only one salad. It is not an accident that the indexed price of fruits and vegetables has increased by 40% since the early 1980s, whereas the indexed price of sodas has decreased by 30%.” Truthfully,.. our government policies subsidize bad food choices. Most of us may not be aware of it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

What do you think of Nestle’s arguments, as well as my added comments? Agree? Disagree? Something to add?

Photo Credit: Stéfan

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