op-ed

The crusade against the Happy Meal

John R. Graham Independent Institute, National Center for Policy Analysis
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Santa Clara County, Calif.: A dozen fast-food workers are lined up against the wall and sheriff’s deputies block the doors. The manager nervously tries to assure that everything is in order, but the hard-eyed detectives aren’t satisfied. Customers think this is a “sting” to round up illegal immigrants, but they are wrong.

One of the inspectors catches a glimpse of something shiny behind a freezer. He reaches behind, and pulls out a six-inch-long plastic Iron Man™ action figure, hard evidence that the restaurant stands in violation of Santa Clara County Ordinance No. NS-300.820. The manager desperately tries to assure the cops that the toy belongs to his son, who inadvertently left it behind. No dice – they haul him downtown on suspicion of using toys in promotions to lure kids and their parents into his restaurant to eat.

That’s right: As part of a crusade against childhood obesity, three politicians in a county of 180,000 people have decided that parents are not allowed to decide whether they can take their children to a restaurant where they might receive a toy alongside their meal. This embarrassing spectacle of political overreach invites a couple of questions: Is the government competent to improve childhood obesity? And does the government have nothing better to do?

In a March 3 column in the San Francisco Chronicle, Santa Clara County Supervisor Ken Yeager unwittingly answered the first question in the negative. He admitted that school lunches “need to be improved” and that “kids need more physical activity.” Indeed, California’s government-owned public schools are so bad at motivating fitness that Assemblyman Isadore Hall (D-Compton) composed a bill, AB 2705, that would require kids in gym classes in Grades 1 through 6 to perform “moderate to strenuous physical activity” for at least 50 percent of the period!

As to the second question, the Board of Supervisors appears to be unmoored from the county’s more pressing concerns. In a survey of Santa Clara County residents conducted last month by the California Restaurant Association (an interested party, to be sure), 80 percent of respondents said that this issue was not something that local government should decide; and almost nine in 10 did not believe that local politicians are better informed than ordinary citizens about what restaurant food is healthy. Only one in 10 believed that local government should have the power to ban toys or gifts from restaurant promotions.

Maybe even the one in 10 who believes that banning toys is the county’s business probably thinks that other issues are more pressing. Last June, the Board of Supervisors approved a budget that tried to plug a hole in the $273 million deficit by ending legal representation for children in dependency cases (through eliminating 24 positions in the District Attorney’s office), and cancelling a patrol unit of Sheriff’s Deputies for the perimeter of the Elmwood Correctional Facility, which contains about 4,000 inmates. But that did not do the trick.

Facing a deficit that still amounts to $230 million as of this month, the County Executive proposes using the Japanese management technique of “hoshin kanri” to make decisions on shrinking departmental budgets. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the proposal did not go over well with the county’s career bureaucrats. Furthermore, the county just reported that assessed property values have collapsed by $21.4 billion in the last year, a drop that the County Assessor described as “off the charts” and a predictor of low property-tax revenues.

Santa Clara County’s Board of Supervisors also found the time to vote four to one to enter amicus curiae in lawsuits challenging Arizona’s new law authorizing state law-enforcement agents to enforce federal immigration laws. The county will soon consider a resolution commanding its own law-enforcement officers not to check suspects’ immigration status, unless required by federal law.

The Santa Clara fast-food ordinance, meanwhile, is so absurd that it prompted even the San Francisco Chronicle (April 30) to editorialize on its futility. Even being held up to ridicule, unfortunately, is not enough to stop politicians claiming a magic answer to childhood obesity.

After all, politicians have a desperate need to be noticed “doing something” about your problems. That’s why, in the near future, a similar ordinance will come to a county near you. Illegal workers may be safe, but not a child’s Happy Meal.

John R. Graham is health care director at the Pacific Research Institute.