Calling it a modest step with enormous implications, San Francisco Supervisor Eric Mar urged the city’s other supervisors to place new restrictions on the use of toys to promote fast food meals to children. 

While city residents lined up in the basement of City Hall to cast their own ballots in the mid-term elections Tuesday, two floors up the supervisors voted 8-3 in favor of the measure.

The new ordinance, which amends existing city code, is titled “Setting Nutritional Standards for Restaurant Food Sold Accompanied by Toys or other Youth Focused Incentive Items.” 

Contrary to widespread descriptions of the measure, it does not ban toys as promotional items for fast food meals, like those served in restaurants such as McDonald’s or Burger King. 

What it does is establish nutritional standards for calories, fat, salt, fruits and vegetables for meals that use toys or any “game, trading card, admission ticket or other consumer product, whether physical or digital” to promote meals for sale to kids.  For example, meals may include toys if the food and drink combined add up to less than 600 calories, and if less than 35 percent of the calories come from fat.

It took more than a few compromises to bring the legislation to a vote.  A clause requiring the inclusion of whole grains in kids’ meals was ultimately dropped and restaurants now have until December 2011 to comply with the new rules. 

Apparently that was enough to persuade holdouts on the board to cast “aye” votes.

While proponents of the measure were thrilled with the supervisors’ decision, critics were disappointed, to say the least. 

“The big surprise today was that the San Francisco supervisors have taken the ‘happy’ out of Happy Meals,” lamented Scott Rodrick after the vote. 

Rodrick’s family owns half of the 20 McDonald’s franchises in San Francisco.  He said he was worried that the ordinance–if it is not vetoed by the mayor–would simply drive business, and money, beyond the city’s borders to neighboring communities such as Daly City or Marin County, which have no such restrictions. 

“It’s not a good day for the consumers of San Francisco,” Rodrick told reporters. The city’s actions, he said, effectively remove the ability of parents to make their own decisions about what is appropriate for their children. 

Not everyone agreed.

“This is fantastic,” beamed Deborah Lapidus, senior organizer for Corporate Accountability International. The Boston-based organization works to expose what it regards as “corporate abuse at the expense of the public good.”

Lapidus disagreed with the idea that San Francisco’s move takes power away from parents.

She claims corporations like McDonald’s spend billions to reach children, and thus challenge parents’ abilities to control their kids’ diets.  She said the new legislation will be a huge boost to public health.

“Curbing predatory marketing will spare the lives of millions of children” she said, “by helping to reduce obesity, diabetes, and numerous other maladies.  Kids are contracting these diseases at earlier and earlier ages.”

Critics argue there is no way to know what the long-term implications of the legislation might be and, as Rodrick alleges, San Francisco’s actions may have no real meaningful impact. The legislation’s supporters, however, differed again. 

Supervisor Bevan Dufty was the crucial swing vote who decided in favor of the ordinance.  He told his fellow supervisors before the vote that the quick service industry–as restaurants such as McDonald’s prefer to be called–spends $1.2 billion each year to advertise to kids and that they were “paying attention” to what was happening in the ornate legislative chambers of San Francisco’s City Hall. 

“I do believe the industry is going to take note of this,” Dufty said, despite the prevailing belief among some outsiders that San Francisco is “wacked out there.”

Wacked or not, the legislation must still make it past the mayor’s desk. 

Deborah Lapidus remained hopeful, noting that since the two week extension of the vote, elections are now over.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, now California’s lieutenant governor-elect, will have all the time he needs to consider the measure.  Newsom, a restaurateur, had previously spoken out against the proposal. 


“I think Mayor Newsom is a champion for public health,” Lapidus said.

But eight votes is enough to override a veto, should it come to that.

McDonald’s franchisee Rodrick noted that 60 years ago, McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc would never have imagined his company offering items such as salads or apple dippers. 

“Our menu is a reflection of what our customers want,” Rodrick said.