Why New York City is considering Happy Meal restrictions again

The bill has been deliberated twice in the past. But this iteration wouldn't ban free toys with kids' meals, says its lead sponsor.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters/File
Two McDonald's Happy Meals with toy watches fashioned after the characters Donkey and Puss in Boots from the movie "Shrek Forever After" in Los Angeles.

The New York City Council is once again deliberating the “Healthy Happy Meals” bill, a proposal that would set nutritional standards for the meals sold with toys in fast food restaurants.

If passed, the law would require restaurants to cut down on calories and start including portions of fruit, vegetables, or grains in the popular meals. Servings would have to consist of 500 calories or less, as well as less fat, sodium, and sugar.

These are “minimum nutrition standards,” said Ben Kallos, lead sponsor of the bill, in a statement.

Councilman Kallos said the plan was drafted in partnership with parents’ groups, the American Heart Association, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The last is a consumer organization that in 2010 sued McDonald’s for what they said was using toys as bait

The “Healthy Happy Meals” issue has been challenged in New York and other parts of the country before. Just last year, the City Council voted against the bill, which then had included a ban on toy giveaways with certain meals, CBS News reported. A similar proposal in 2011 failed to pass.

This iteration “would not ban toys sold with kids’ meals,” said Kallos.

Talk of the bill often compares it with a law in California, named the Healthy Food Incentive Ordinance and known for its derisory success. Unlike the New York bill, legislation to ban toy giveaways in 2011 was “easily passed” by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, according to The Huffington Post.

But critics say McDonald’s managed to sidestep the requirement by charging 10 cents for the addition of a toy – serving the same meals as before.

The latest bill in New York is being supported by at least 21 council members, and researchers at New York University’s Langone Medical Center have also come forward with their support.

A new study from them suggests that the policy would make a significant difference in reducing childhood obesity, which currently affects more than one in six American children, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

In New York City, the Department of Health says nearly half of all elementary school and Head Start children are too heavy.

Researchers examined the receipts for more than 400 kids’ meals purchased at Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s restaurants, and found that most of the servings had about 600 calories and exceeded various nutritional limits.

Authors of the study also said they had “distributed toys with modified McDonald’s Happy Meals designed to comply with the California law. Children were more likely to choose healthier modified meals with the toy than unchanged meals without the toy,” they said.

“While 54 calories at a given meal is a small reduction, small changes that affect a wide number of people can make a large impact,” said Dr. Brian Elbel, an associate professor of population health and health policy who led the study.

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