By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
A self-funded "restaurant selection study" of 1,200 Americans undertaken by customer satisfaction consultants the CFI Group found that an astounding 32 percent of McDonald's patrons were eating at the Golden Arches primarily because a child had pushed them to — compared to other fast food outlets, where a kid was the "primary decider" just 7 percent of the time. And yet, among diners with kids in tow, only 19 percent cited a toy as playing any part in their decision to go to McDonald's — and just 8 percent said the toy was the main reason.
"The city appears to be correct — McDonald's does have a foothold in leveraging children's influence," says Michael Drago, a CFI executive who worked on the survey. "But the toy isn't the cause of it." Rather, he says, it's the untold billions McDonald's has overtly poured into marketing to children, virtually from day one of its existence. That includes cartoon characters, playgrounds, and, most of all, making its restaurants kid-friendly, convenient places to spend a few dollars and consume a few thousand calories. "McDonald's, like all quick-service restaurants, dominates not because the food is exceptional but because it's convenient and affordable," he continues. "People have a shortage of time and income, and grabbing a burger for them is a fair exchange versus preparing a homemade meal. The more knowledgeable those parents and families are, the more likely that behavior will change. Our data said removal of a toy will not change that behavior."
McDonald's, which has protested San Francisco's legislation as overreaching, is keeping mum on whether its options involve litigation. It's already on the receiving end of a suit in San Francisco court by a woman named Monet Parham, who claims the chain is engaged in "a highly sophisticated scheme to use the bait of toys to exploit children's developmental immaturity and subvert parental authority."
Yet even if yanking the toys out of Happy Meals — by order of a municipality or a judge — keeps kids away from McDonald's, that's no guarantee youngsters will be eating responsibly. No health or nutrition expert SF Weekly spoke with saw this as a meaningful move in the fight against childhood obesity. "This is an attention-getting way to draw interest to pediatric obesity," says UCSF nutritionist Patricia Booth. "Will it have any impact on pediatric obesity? I'd say not." She notes that it "seems unlikely" that Happy Meals "are contributing that large a percentage of [children's] calories." Let us hope.
Booth's colleague, public health nutrition investigator Barbara Laria, says the Happy Meal ban was a blow against the insidious practice of marketing directly to children — "but just such a tiny, tiny, little step in that direction. ... This is a very small piece of legislation."
A city can do only so much to stem the tide against a national epidemic like pediatric obesity. But, without question, San Francisco could do more than take tiny steps — if it reorganized its priorities. When asked what substantive moves this city could make to help its children eat better, every expert SF Weekly consulted — unanimously and independently — stated the obvious: Improve school lunches.
San Francisco politicos are proud of our schoolchildren's lunches — "These salad bars are working!" was one of the more memorable lines in former Mayor Gavin Newsom's epic, 7.5-hour YouTube state of the city address in 2008. To an extent, these salad bars are working. Zetta Reicker, the San Francisco Unified School District's assistant director of nutrition services, says that 50 percent of students are availing themselves of the salad bars that so titillated Newsom. They are made possible by partial subsidization from the city, to the tune of $250,000.
But that quarter of a million dollars represents just over 1 percent of the district's school lunch program's $18 million yearly budget. The other 99 percent of the program isn't working as well.
In order to serve 22,000 lunches a day, the district can afford to spend just $1 per meal. On such a budget, it's actually astounding that San Francisco's students are served food with any semblance of healthfulness at all — its meals are a far cry from the ketchup-and-grease-soaked dreck that likely haunts readers' memories. Yet "beef sausage pizza," "French bread cheese pizza," and "creamy chicken bow-tie pasta" are all on this month's menu — and all of these entrées arrive, frozen, on a truck from Chicago. Lunch on Jan. 19 — "cheeseburger with baked beans" — beats McDonald's cheeseburger, fries, and soda on the nutritional front. But it isn't health food. Maybe that's because even a Happy Meal costs more than a dollar.
The school district "is doing amazing things with very little," says Rajiv Bajtia, the city's director of environmental health. In fact, San Francisco is meeting the USDA's "Gold Standard" — and Reicker notes that the school lunch program is running at a deficit in order to do so. "Imagine if they had a little more," Bajtia continues. "Imagine if they had a local cooking kitchen."
Imagining is about all we can do at this point. Doing something substantive about school lunches would require taking on the political gorgon of overlapping local, state, and federal jurisdictions. Changing the status quo would not be easy — in fact, even maintaining the status quo is challenging. Administering school lunch programs is such a bureaucratic nightmare that San Francisco in 2009 lost out on millions in federal reimbursements by not following to the letter Byzantine rules regarding serving procedure and student eligibility.