The chorus calling for change such as the ordinance passed in San Francisco last year to ban toys from children’s meals that don’t meet certain calorie cutoffs and limits on fat, salt and sugar grew this week with a national ad campaign signed by more than 550 physicians and healthy-eating advocates asking McDonald’s to retire Ronald McDonald and change the way it markets its more fattening food to children. On the flip side, a Los Angeles Times story reports that restaurant lobbyists “flying under the radar” have killed a proposed ban in Nebraska and successfully pushed legislation to ensure that such bans can’t be enacted in Arizona and Florida.
Last week, The Washington Post went straight to the people at the heart of the controversy, bypassing industry experts, health professionals, corporate spokespeople and even parents, and asked children for their thoughts on the issue. Some sided with those calling for a ban on toys and advertising to their generation, but many said it’s up to the parents to teach their children healthy eating habits and, most importantly, to say “no” and stand firm. “Whenever my family passes a McDonald’s, my little sister always wants to stop. Sometimes my mom does take us there (for a treat) and sometimes she says: ‘No, we don’t need go now.’ Either way, it is her decision and we totally understand,” wrote 9-year-old Colleen Loftus.
I have a good friend who swore before her first daughter was born that the child wouldn’t set foot in a store before the age of 4. I laughed then – as she does now – at the impracticality of it but understood the sentiment. Today’s children are bombarded with advertising messages at every turn, way before they’ve acquired the skills to distinguish editorial content from sales pitches. It seems like the easiest way to teach children not to be little materialists who overindulge at every opportunity is just to shield them from temptation, and in many cases it may be the best way, but my friend and other parents have found that setting a good example is a much more practical way to teach them your values and arm them for a future of making their own choices.
Today, her two daughters go with her to the grocery store and during road trips they’ve been known to eat quickservice fries in the back seat and play with the toys that came with lunch. But she also packs nutritious snacks and at home they dine on plenty of fruits, enjoy vegetables from the garden all summer and are required to finish dinner before dessert, which often as not is a cup of yogurt.
Would it be easier for parents like my friend to do her job if there were fewer temptations? Of course it would, and proponents of the ban and the people behind Corporate Accountability International‘s push to persuade McDonald’s to dramatically change the way it markets food to children take that a step further. In this week’s ad, the group acknowledges that there are several factors that have conspired to make more U.S. children overweight and unhealthy, but attribute a significant portion of the blame to marketing messages that vie for dominance with parental guidance, and asks the company to also set a better example. The group plans to state its case today at McDonald’s annual meeting, with a shareholder resolution asking the company for a report “assessing the company’s policy responses to public concerns regarding linkages of fast food to childhood obesity, diet-related diseases and other impacts on children’s health.”
Does your restaurant market to children? Are you re-evaluating any of your strategies to promote healthier eating? Tell us about it in the comments.