Improving school lunches is one of the most intractable problems any politician could hope to take on. Yet any serious attempt to combat childhood obesity is meaningless if school meals are still repositories of freeze-dried fat. Only a public servant who was willing to work tirelessly, raise revenue — and go without glory for a long time — could even potentially make it happen. Perhaps if Eric Mar were president of the school board, he could have undertaken this Herculean task. Except, of course, that he was president of the school board in 2005 and a member from 2001 to 2009 — and didn't.

Mar, however, did in 2004 help push through a school board resolution banning cafeterias from serving meat irradiated to kill bacteria — even though, per the resolution, "the SFUSD has not in the past used irradiated foods, is not currently using these products, and has no current plans or proposal to use such foods."

After he became a city supervisor, with no real responsibility over children's eating habits, Mar decided to make an even more grandiose crusade of childhood health through a mostly symbolic gesture.

Like a Happy Meal, the city's Happy Meal legislation is cheap — Bajtia doesn't expect to field many complaint-based inspections of renegade fast food outlets, and San Franciscans won't be asked to cough up a dime. Like a Happy Meal, it's convenient — San Franciscans are more likely to proclaim George W. Bush a misunderstood genius than they are to protest McDonald's being unfairly victimized over the quality of its food. And, like a Happy Meal, our city's legislation is superficial. In the meantime, it warrants mentioning that not one meal served to San Francisco's schoolchildren in December or January — the 708-calorie beef dippers; the 711-calorie cheese lasagna; or the 712-calorie chicken nuggets — would qualify under the Healthy Meal Incentive Ordinance to be allowed to come with a toy.

San Francisco is trying to hold McDonald's to a higher standard than it is willing to hold itself.


Despite San Francisco's noble intentions, the world remains stubbornly unsaved. In fact, the jury remains out on whether the city's spate of bans has even made life better for residents. While banning things gets this city the headlines it craves, the Happy Meal ban isn't the only one that won't get us results — or at least the results we were trying for.

• When former Mayor Gavin Newsom pulled sugared sodas out of City Hall and other city properties, it sent two interesting messages. First, it indicated our erstwhile mayor felt the men and women who run our city could not be trusted with beverage selection. Second, pitching the replacement of soda with fruit juices as an "anti-obesity move" demonstrated a remarkable lack of nutritional knowledge. While fruit juice is certainly more healthful than soda, it often has more calories — the source of obesity. UCSF critical care nutritionist Irma Ishkanian notes, "If you have juice [instead of soda], you're still having just as many or more calories. It's not really helping with obesity." Net impact on obesity: Nothing.

• In 2008, the city declared that selling tobacco in drugstores alongside medication would give residents the impression that San Francisco thinks cigarettes are healthy — a rationale that was not applied to the liquor, desserts, snack foods, wacky diet pills, and Danielle Steel novels also available. At least not yet. This year, the city extended the cigarette prohibition to Costco-like big box stores, supermarkets, and mom 'n' pop pharmacies. Tobacco, meanwhile, remains readily available in liquor stores and smoke shops (and, for that matter, neighboring cities). A recent survey by the state Department of Public Health, incidentally, revealed that a slightly greater percentage of San Franciscans light up than the California average. Net impact on health: Nada.

• When San Francisco banned plastic grocery bags, it became a worldwide cause célèbre, and allowed residents and politicians to label themselves environmental trailblazers. Sadly, as SF Weekly pointed out in 2009, merely shunting shoppers unthinkingly from plastic bags to paper ones is arguably worse for the environment — creating paper bags is a putrid process, and they take up a great deal of space in landfills. Also, it does nothing to alter consumers' throwaway mentality. To his credit, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, the architect of the bag ban, has acknowledged that San Francisco's legislation is incomplete. He has long pushed for a bag fee, like the one approved in San Jose, that will finally persuade shoppers to bring their own bags and lead to less consumption. Other city politicians, however, have had no qualms embracing San Francisco's problematic ban to burnish their green laurels. Net impact on the environment: Negligible.

San Francisco hasn't yet banned sodium-laden foods like Rice-a-Roni — but banning things has already supplanted it as the San Francisco treat. If it doesn't actually have a significant impact, then why do we do this?

The better question may be "Why not?" These bans may not actually do anything for the public, but they often make voters feel good and politicians feel great. Like Happy Meals, most legislation that pushes the boundaries of government for purely symbolic reasons is fast, cheap, and light-years easier than the drudgery necessary to give children high-quality food daily; provide affordable housing for the middle class; or turn around our beleaguered public transit system. That kind of ordeal takes time and money and requires commitment — on behalf of both politicians and the people. Like a trip to the drive-through, the ease and convenience of symbolic bans can be addictive. Activists and constituents may use their "pester power" to push their elected representatives for more and more.


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