by Marion Nestle
Jan 10 2011

Harvard Forum: Who decides what your children eat?

When San Francisco voted to eliminate toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals, the Forum at the Harvard School of Public Health invited comments on this issue.  Here’s what I had to say about it:

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’m actually going to take the other position here. We’ve been eating badly for decades in part *because* of government. They promoted the original food pyramid, which is what I was taught in school and which is now being openly questioned. Did business influence the pyramid? Of course! And business continues to be involved in this process.

    The solution? Education and empowerment for individuals. Laws shouldn’t govern our food choices. Knowledge should.

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  • Suzanne

    Marion or fellow FP readers – Can you recommend an organization that is actively working to lobby for changes in commodity subsidies in the next Farm Bill?

    I want to get it involved.

  • Cathy Richards

    Beautifully said marion. Every time the radio or tv airs something about the “San Fran Ban” on (Un)Happy Meals I start foaming at the mouth and yelling “it’s the toy, not the meal, go ahead and eat your freaking stupid meal!!” while pulling out my hair and collapsing into a fetal position, sobbing, banging my fist on my floor. They haven’t heard me!! Hopefully they’ll hear you 🙂

  • Marion

    @Suzanne: lots of groups are working on this right now. Try Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Food and Water Watch, Community Food Security Coalition, Organic Trade Association, and many local groups. Google “farm bill advocacy” and see what pops up.

  • Kim

    Unfortunately, Jean, the working poor and those living at or below the poverty level are not as empowered as the rest of us. When they can buy 5 hamburgers for the price of one salad, the salad becomes a luxury. This phenomenon is the direct result of our government’s policy of promoting mass production of corn (including feed corn for cattle) by heavily subsidizing that crop. In doing so, the government is telling Americans to eat cheap beef and sugary drinks.

    When we reach the point where everyone is financially empowered to choose a $5 salad over a $1 hamburger, then your suggestion may work. In the meantime, an overhaul of farm policy is desperately needed in this country.

  • Anthro

    Thanks again, Marion. I’m there on the floor with Cathy, fuming at the insinuation that the meal has been banned.

    Thanks for your nice response to Jean; you saved me the trouble . I’d only add that there isn’t that much wrong with the good old food pyramid and would question Jean placing so much emphasis on it.

    Also, thanks for the list of organizations Marion, I will have to get busy on that instead of just complaining!

  • Thanks, Marion, for always being the voice of reason. It’s even less dramatic than that. The SF law does not ban anything, not even toys. It simply sets reasonable nutrition standards for those restaurants that choose to use a toy or other incentive to lure kids in. The fact that McDonald’s Happy Meals do not currently match that criteria means they have a choice: change the meals or stop using toys.

  • Suzanne

    Thank you Marion and Michele Simon for the organizational and legal updates. Much appreciated!

  • Dr. Nestle, our statement, “But as everyone knows, kids only want Happy Meals because of the toys,” is easily shown to be false. I don’t know it nor do I know anyone who knows much about psychology or the careful calculation that a company like McDonalds puts into a product like “Happy Meals” that “knows kids only want Happy Meals because of the toys.”

    Can you show us a peer reviewed article that supports either part of your contention?

    At the most, removing the toy is like cutting the cherry on the top of the chocolate sundae in half and throwing one of the pieces away. All that needs to be done is to turn the cut side down. I will be astonished that it will make a significant difference in sales.

    And, just think, a year from now a school like NYU can get a grant to study it. My guess is that study will say the data is inconclusive and we need to gather more data or study this over a longer period of time or…

    Also, Dr. Nestle, I would love a link to a peer reviewed study that shows the actual impact on prices of the current farm bill My strong disagreement with the farm bill doesn’t mean I have to quit seeing what it actually does.

    Commodity crops are grown industrially because they lend themselves to that style of agriculture. Salads are a horse of a vastly different color. And, I wonder how many of your readers have tried to grow the components of a salad for market as I have. How about you, Dr. Nestle?

    In addition, the beleaguered working single parent is disempowered by this kind of claptrap. Your “advocacy” continues the litany of how inexpensive the food is and how powerless the poor are. Congratulations on reinforcing the conventional thinking/paradigm and providing McDonalds with free advertising.

    My wife and I operate a year-round store for local, healthy food. We seldom have anyone who is hungry or poor come into our store. And no poor person goes out without food. We will always happily share the less than perfect produce that we eat that we regularly sell well below the cost of “Happy Meal.”

    We accepted food stamps (now SNAP) when the transaction cost overall meant we lost money on it. We couldn’t participate in WIC because we didn’t carry the required dairy products. These things made more difference than the toy in a “Happy Meal” ever did.

    Finally, the San Francisco City Council has now continued the outmoded practice of passing another law instead of doing what needs to be done (and given conservatives more ammo). But, this was good politics in San Francisco because their supporters liked feeling they were pioneering and doing good. Of course, it also kept the San Franciscans from focusing on their own problems of food and justice and diverted attention from those problems.

    As always, I happily entertain any dissenting opinions sent to I’ll even pay for the phone call to discuss this and related issues with you.

  • Many of the pricing issues are government based. Again, the source is business, but the government is lobbied heavily and is impacted by these sources.

    If, instead, we dropped government pricing mechanisms I think we’d find the price differentials would be very different.

    I do think the food pyramid is flawed. Here’s one published piece on this topic:,0,5464425.story

    In the end it’s still about personal empowerment and being educated. Even with some generally accepted guidelines for healthy eating, it has to work for us individually.

  • Michael Bulger

    I’m pleased that San Francisco has made it easier for the working, single parent to help their child eat healthier food. I don’t think it is debatable that the plastic toys have a significant appeal and encourage children to ask for a Happy Meal.

    Anyone who grew up with the toys and their movie and cartoon tie-ins knows quite well that they were in fact a driving factor behind requesting McD’s. Of course, McD’s knows that too, and that is why they put them in the Happy Meals. If McD’s insists on enticing kids with plastic do-dads, they will now have to do so with healthy, balanced meals.

    Hopefully, this will enable parents to avoid tantrums and keep their kids healthy at the same time. Perhaps, they will use their food stamps to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. Maybe local, healthy stores can honor EBT and provide some (environmentally-responsible) toys of their own..

  • Angie McKee

    @ Harry: I think there are several comments to be made concerning the first part of your statement asking for peer-reviewed articles.

    First, we buy kids toys. I can’t think of a single kid who does not own a toy of some sort. It is a cultural norm that American children like brightly colored, fun things. A toy as a draw does not seem like a foreign concept.

    Also, in a report released by the FTC concerning childrens exposure to ad’s on TV, of the 5,500 ads children viewed pertaining to food in 2004, 5.3% were restaurant of fast food ads. This got me thinking about what these fast food ads contain. A simple search for McDonald’s Happy Meal TV ads on YouTube showcased a WIDE range of ad’s that prominently presented the viewer with the toys the meal contained. If the toys are not a draw, why bother showing them?

    There is a myriad of literature concerning advertisements to children and what works. A nice into is the FTC report “Children’s Exposure to TV Advertising in 1977 and 2004.”

    In addition to this, remember the Beannie Baby craze of the 1990’s and how McDonald’s had a Beannie Baby in each happy meal? Remember those Happy Meal toys became incredibly hot collectors items? There must be something behind the toys in the meals…

    Second, if they want the food more than they want the toys, we are in a mess of trouble. This just means we have generations of kids raised on Happy Meals who like it because of the taste… not the toy. Scary to think of the downfall of the American Palette. I prefer to think they want it because of the toy.

  • Pete

    @ Harry – I have had the privilege of working with some of the members of the original Happy Meal marketing crew. (Good people that didn’t realize the implications their efforts would have.) Their studies, costing millions, indicated that kids though fast food dining was “boring” and would contest their parents when presented with the option. This was a MAJOR hurdle for McD’s and they turned to the marketing community for answers. It sounds so silly in hindsight (as most successful ideas do), but after a year or so the Happy meal was born and it was as simple as making a ready made meal, including a toy and a clever name (happy meal is pretty good). So the very reason it was invented was because kids didn’t want to go to McDonald’s – it was boring.

    So where do I get this all from? 15 years of working my way up the marketing ladders. Why do I share it with such discontent? Because on my way up I realized who I was stepping on. Everyone.

    You know why so many people believe marketing doesn’t work on them. ‘Cause we are that good.

  • Barry

    Those of you who are old enough will remember the four food groups and can EXPLAIN it. Those that grew up with the food pyramid don’t understand it and everyone has a hard time understanding or even explaining it. Is it REALLY the food or the toy? Kids don’t drive, don’t have money or credit cards, so where is the parent responsibility in all of this? Yes, the toy and the box and the images DO influence children to beg and pester the parents into giving in. Hey mom, dad, how about I try drugs, booze or cigarettes? NO WAY! There has been a decade or more of lack of education of PARENTS on what to feed, how to feed and how to encourage (force) children to be active. But when the adults set the bad images, the children follow suit. Everyone understands that there is a problem now. Very late in the game, but NOT too late to make a change. And it is NOT about blaming McD, or any or all of the fast food, restaurants, grocery stores or manufactures. It is about a lack of understanding and awareness on the part of ALL of us and it will take ALL of us together to “make the difference”.
    BTW, I have a large collection of bennie babies from when my children were little and would sell for the right price?

  • Pete

    Oh parent responsibility… I love it. Excuse me but…”sucker!” you think Happy Meals are about getting kids to BUY McDonald’s? It’s about establishing an unbreakable bond with the McDonald’s brand. The second that kid is old enough and has some pocket money McDs needs to be the cool place to go. Toy’s are a piece of that strategy. Some might say the constant denying of McDs by parents only elevates their kid’s desires to eat there. The very time they gain some independence is also the time they start to rebel against authority. Marketers capitalize on this at every turn.

    To look at advertisements as merely selling a product is to miss the big picture. The idea, the feeling, the brand are whats being sold. The idea that you NEED something to feel happiness, you NEED social acceptance, you DESERVE success – this is the underbelly of marketing – especially to children. Marketing to kids is not about getting them to make purchases, its about getting them to influence purchases and ultimately become lifelong consumers. The fact that most kids in America today aspire to “be rich” above all else (including Baseball player and President) is a testament to how successful the marketing of consumerism has been. And the recent financial crisis illustrated how it can go terribly wrong (and we haven’t seen the end).

    Next time you see a TV commercial pay attention to the house the family lives in, the car they drive, the furniture they own… all the little things most people gloss over. You pick up on these cues whether you know it or not. Kids grow up thinking these are average households and ultimately what they need to obtain. Possessions. all of these cues are meticulously constructed (I’ve worked on many) and nothing is left to chance.

    Try and have a bad thought about Cheerios. That is branding at its finest.

  • Cathy Richards

    @Pete – your comments are great. I’m Lovin’ Them (It).
    Very good to hear a marketer’s/advertiser’s historical perspective.

  • Genie

    @ Jean. I can recommend a great book about the Food Pyramid flaws and politics. It is called “Food Politics” and it was written by Marion Nestle.

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  • Sarah

    I typically agree with the majority of Ms. Nestle’s posts but I will politely disgree with this post. Both of my parents worked fulltime (I grew up in the 1990s) but hardly ever would my parents indulge the whining of my siblings and myself for Happy Meals even during the beanie baby craze. We didn’t have lots of money but instead of purchasing cable tv, video games, etc my parents purchased healthy foods (frozen veggies are crazy cheap as are beans, lentils, etc).

    I would argue that money spent on legislation attempting to restrict/ban foods that are available for consumer purchase would be better spent on education purposes. I graduated from high school in 2004 and my “health” class was taught by my gym teacher. The nutrional information I’ve learned is based on personal research and working with a RD. I believe that the government should require nutrion classes be taught (especially in high school) with an emphasis on healthy living in all grades.

    People are too quick to blame corporations, etc for personal problems. Nobody forced you to purchase the Happy Meal. Consumers need to realize the power and control that he/she has over purchases. If enough people stopped purchasing fast food, the market for fast food would slowly shrink. People can blame marketing but ultimately it is his/her decision to purchase that product.

    PS Cheerios has lower calories than Lucky Charms per serving but is still a processed food. You’d be better eating oats that you prepared yourself (not those instant packages filled with more chemicals and added junk).

  • Liz

    My kids look forward to our happy meal fridays – my 4 kids – it means they eat fun food with their babysitter while mommy & daddy go on date night. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve come home and the toys weren’t even opened. They like the food – its a treat – not to be confused with every day meals. I have no problem with mcdonalds or anyone else marketing to my kids – it only makes it more of a treat – what’s wrong with a treat! I control what they eat and have – just like we waited a year before they finally got the pillow pets they so desperately wanted – from Santa. People need to lighten up. Life is too short to worry about everything. Get your kids active, give em a happy meal – they’ve been around since the beginning of time – not everything has to be a political issue – happy meals? Really? How about education – and teaching kids about healthy living – now that is important – teach kids about moderation – but for God’s sake give them a friggin Happy Meal!

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