The Food Police

Posted on December 6, 2011


This is Democracy in action.  Normally I’m all for this sort of local government.  In fact, though I find the actual law ignorant, misguided and just plain stupid, I must applaud the citizens of San Francisco for pushing their agenda on a local level, instead of a national one.  What works for one city, county or state, may not work for another; and that’s one of the founding principles behind our Constitution.

I’ll summarize the article: San Francisco passed a ban on free toy giveaways in kid’s meals at fast-food restaurants.  Apparently, the parents (and other “concerned citizens”) of the Bay Area feel that it’s irresponsible for restaurants to entice children into eating their unhealthy food.  Now, the spoken message is different: “Eric Mar, the … supervisor who sponsored the ordinance … said the goal of the law was not to micromanage fast-food restaurants, but to raise awareness about the nutritional content of the food.”  Unfortunately, this statement falls flat on its face when you consider the impact of the ban.

Let me be clear about this: the lawmakers can say what they want about their intentions, but the effect of a law should be considered when we evaluate it.  Eric Mar says that he doesn’t want to control fast-food; this implies that he doesn’t want to punish them.  But the effect of the law is a punishment.  Who is responsible for feeding a child?  The fast-food industry, or the child’s parents?  As I see it, the issue of responsibility lies solely with the parent when it comes to children (with a few exceptions, which I’ll cover below).  If the parent doesn’t want their kids eating unhealthy food, don’t feed them unhealthy food.  Further, if a parent goes into a McDonald’s and expects to find healthy options, they’re in the wrong place.

Yes, it’s nice that fast-food restaurants have started offering “healthier” options.  And it’s good for their business.  They expand their customer base to avoid losing money, and they know you’ll buy a desert or a side of fries with that salad, once you’ve entered their store.  Win-win, right?  Yes, it helps that fast-food restaurants are required to make nutritional information available.  Customers can see what they’re putting into their bodies, and it’s good customer-relations (even if they’re required to do it by law).  Win-win.  But the obesity rate continues to rise.  Gee, I wonder why…?

This ban in San Francisco is a political move, designed to curb the ability of advertisers and the food industry to impact our eating habits.  They claim it’s to increase awareness, but Americans have been aware for years, and they’re still eating poorly.  The same applies with cigarettes, or alcohol; we’ve known that using tobacco greatly increases the risk for cancer, and we know that alcohol severely impairs judgment and motor skills.  But people still drink, and smoke, and eat greasy cheeseburgers!  And all the while, a slim minority sits around thinking about how they can use the system to pass laws to control how we act.

But I’m getting off topic: I’m starting to think that this sort of local activism (which I applaud in spirit, if not in content) is a direct response to the inability of lawmakers to have any real impact on the nutritional habits of young Americans.  In this article, we find a summary of Congress’ latest blunder: not passing sensible guidelines for school food programs.  Now, my political views tend toward conservative lines; on some issues, I’m more liberal; and on others, I try to think as a Christian first.  But this just blows me away.  I’ve only studied psychology part-time, but what I do know about children is that they are impressionable, and the things they do as kids will shape their habits as adults.  A boy abused by his father will likely abuse those close to him as an adult.  A girl raised by a hard-working, single mother will probably develop a good work ethic.  Ultimately, the human psyche is more complicated than that, but I think we can say those things with assurance.  So if you want your child to eat healthy as a teen, and later in life, feed her good food now.

And this is where I think it’s not always the responsibility of the parent.  In this nation, we send our kids to public schools.  The government provides structure and education for them.  Whatever the purpose of that system, if we apply the basics of child psychology, it stands to reason that we should be feeding our kids nutritional food.  In other words … and I apologize in advance for shouting … PIZZA IS NOT A VEGETABLE!  Potatoes are not vegetables (nutritionally speaking; they’re more a starch and lack the nutrients found in most vegetables).  Yet, despite the laws and regulations we pass and revise, schools continue to ignore the rules and serve whatever they damn well please.  So in this case, at least, responsibility lies in the people as a whole, but since those who care enough to do something about it can’t make an impact at the federal level, they’re forced to do what they can locally.

(Actually, the pizza link above is a very interesting article that explains the language in the bill: they’re talking about tomato paste, not pizza.  Theoretically, then, so long as there’s enough tomato paste present, a slice of pizza or two could meet nutritional guidelines.  Naturally, there’s still the issue of sugar in the sauce, and sugar and fat in the crust, and fat and salt in the cheese…)

One final comment: to those who might argue that fast-food options are convenient and economical (when you take into account the amount of time needed to make a meal), I say “BS.”  I’ve had this argument so many times before, so here’s a couple websites that can help: brown bag savings calculator; an article comparing the home kitchen to the restaurant; and one that compares the cost of a single meal against the same cost in groceries.  And these are the first three articles from a Google search.  Seriously, a little effort…