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Davis

Davis, California

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Column: Blame Ronald McDonald

Three supervisors in the county of Santa Clara have decided that food choices are too important to be left up to parents. Because average, adult citizens simply cannot see the insidious link between junk food, obesity and toys, a small group of enlightened supervisors have decided to protect and educate us by mandating the removal of toys from fast food meals.

Who would have thought the small hunks of plastic included in McDonald’s Happy Meals were indeed causing the American obesity epidemic? Who would have known that the simple joy brought to children through the inclusion of Lego Batman and Chops the Lamb were actually ignominious ploys by McDonald’s to bring obesity and heart disease to all the world’s children? They would have succeeded too if it wasn’t for that meddlesome Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

According to the supervisors, this mandate was intended to sweep the nation. This action could thereby end childhood obesity. It’s interesting that the epidemic doesn’t seem to be nearly as big a problem in places such as Japan, where McDonald’s and Happy Meals are quite plentiful. Perhaps there should be an investigation into the persuasive powers of Batman and Barbie as opposed to Pokemon and Hello Kitty.

The language of the new law does allow McDonald’s to place toys back in the meal if those meals meet certain nutritional requirements. The restaurants have 90 days to comply. So the toy ban is meant to be a sort of ultimatum to McDonald’s and similar businesses to clean up their menus before they are literally forced to remove one of the competitive advantages that has allowed McDonald’s to dominate the fast food market.

A serious question that should be asked is that in light of the obvious connection between eating fast food and higher rates of obesity, why stop at simply severing the link between the behavior and the result? It would be more expedient to simply ban fast food altogether. They won’t do this because such an aggressive use of governmental power would cause a major pushback.

What the supervisors in Santa Clara County are attempting to do can be described as “choice engineering.” They want to nudge the population in a certain direction without outright violating their freedom of choice. They believe that a relatively small group of “experts” has a better understanding of the way the world works and can better negotiate the perils of choice than the massive number of people in society can.

I wouldn’t argue that eating fast food is okay or that the presence of toys in Happy Meals doesn’t influence a parent’s decision to buy McDonald’s food. I believe that decision, along with most child-rearing decisions, should be left up to parents. It’s a matter of where responsibility should lie.

Ultimately, the choice is over having a loving parent who is deeply interested in your well being to help guide you through childhood, or a few impersonal bureaucrats working in a government office who view you as a number or statistic. The message being sent is that parents shouldn’t have to worry about telling their children no or instilling good behaviors in them that will carry them throughout life.

The more the government restricts choices in this manner, the less capable we will be at acting independently like adults. No matter how brilliant some people may be, and no matter how deeply they look into a set of statistics, they will eventually make mistakes that a very large number of average, responsible people will correct over time.

Other countries have fewer problems with childhood obesity because of lifestyles that, outside the control of government agencies, decrease the chance of becoming overweight.

The decision to remove toys from Happy Meals is a misguided policy that will not stop childhood obesity. Without Happy Meal toys, irresponsible parents who take their children to McDonald’s five times a week might bring them to Wendy’s or Taco Bell instead, but the issue will still remain unsolved and one more slice of freedom will have been taken away.

JARRETT STEPMAN has a few fond memories of collecting Happy Meal toys as a child and he is not overweight. Thanks Mom and Dad! Jarrett can be reached at jstepman@ucdavis.edu.

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