By Tracy SeipelSan Jose Mercury News
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Hoping again to be a pioneer in promoting healthier eating, Santa Clara County supervisors on Tuesday approved the nation’s first ordinance that would prevent restaurants from using toys to lure kids to meals high in fat, sugar and calories.
The law prohibits restaurants in unincorporated parts of the county from giving away goodies unless the meals meet certain nutritional guidelines. More and more in recent years, fast-food critics say restaurants have encouraged families to make unhealthy choices by offering Iron Man Cyclone Spinning Robot Drones and Barbie Mermaid dolls with their Happy Meals.
Although the crackdown will affect no more than a handful of restaurants, county supervisors hope their vote will create a ripple effect in cities, other counties and the state – similar to how Santa Clara County helped to lead the way on forcing fast-food chains to post calorie counts on menus. They also hoped this latest push would prod the restaurant industry to take notice.
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Judging from Tuesday’s standing-room-only crowd in the county board chamber and the ensuing national news reports on the vote, they succeeded.
“This ordinance breaks the link between unhealthy food and prizes,” said Supervisor Ken Yeager, who sponsored the initiative. Yeager said it is unfair to parents and children to use toys to capture the tastes of children when they’re young and “to get them hooked on eating high-sugar, high-fat foods early in life.”
California Restaurant Association spokesman Dan Conway said his 22,000-member group was against the ordinance – and so were many county residents who think government is going too far.
Conway said a poll by his organization showed that 80 percent of county residents contacted said banning toys included in restaurant meal promotions is not an important issue for local government.
“The message they (supervisors) are sending is that parents are making the wrong choices and therefore they should no longer have the choice,” Conway said.
Under the ordinance, restaurants would not be able to offer toys for kids’ meals that exceed certain nutritional standards – more than 485 total calories, for instance, or more than 600 milligrams of sodium.
That means, at Wendy’s, four chicken nuggets, mandarin oranges and low-fat milk would get a toy. But the crispy chicken sandwich, fries and chocolate milk would not.
The new law’s reach is limited, and applies to restaurants only in such areas as San Martin, Stanford University, San Jose’s Burbank and Cambrian neighborhoods and other small pockets that are not part of any city. Among a list of 151 eateries compiled by Yeager’s staff, up to a dozen could be affected.
While Supervisors Don Gage and George Shirakawa voted against the ordinance, the three supervisors who voted in favor – Yeager, Dave Cortese and Liz Kniss – hope their vote and its message will put the county at the forefront of the fight against childhood obesity.
It wouldn’t be the first time the board made headlines about the topic.
In 2008, the board voted unanimously to require menu-labeling for fast-food restaurants, putting the county out front along with San Francisco and New York City in setting a national standard for fighting obesity. But it was the county’s law that was eventually adopted by the state.
During Tuesday’s meeting, a crowd of about 300 packed the board chamber and listened to county health officials cite statistics they say support the ordinance. Although the county ranks as one of the healthiest in the nation, one in four seventh-, ninth- and 11th-graders in the county are either overweight or obese, and one in three low-income children between the ages of 2 and 5 fall into the same two categories. Latinos are disproportionately affected by the epidemic.
If these trends persist, they said, the next generation will have a lower life expectancy.
But when Amalia Chamorro, speaking on behalf of the state restaurant association, turned to ask how many of the audience – many of them Latino and who work in the fast-food industry – would oppose the ordinance, the majority rose their hands.
Among about two dozen public speakers who addressed the board were local fast food franchise owners who said their menus already include healthy alternatives.
Furniture installer Stephen Hazel told the board that the ordinance was meaningless because families could just as easily patronize restaurants in neighboring cities that offer toys with meals. And what would be next on their list of bans, he asked: pizza and Taco Bell?
“You can’t legislate choice,” he admonished them. “Don’t do it.”
Parents spoke as well, some in favor of the ban, some against.
Tracy Nashner, a San Jose mother of two, told the board she opposed the ban because she didn’t believe there is a link between the toys and the obesity problem. “We don’t go for the toy,” she said, but for the food.
Saratoga Mayor Kathleen King, a parent of five children, one of whom is a special-needs child, also said the toys influence her children’s meal choices. But she agreed with the ban and thanked the county for taking the lead in the debate. “I’m happy to see the county I live in taking a very proactive role,” said King.
The board did leave an opening for some negotiation with the industry after Cortese suggested that the board add a 90-day grace period for the restaurant industry to come up with alternatives that would meet the board’s standard.
“I wish that offer had been made a month and a half ago when this issue came up,” Conway said of the state’s restaurant association. “I don’t quite know what to make of an offer like that, but I sure didn’t get the sense there was any middle ground here.”
The ordinance will return to the board May 11 for a final vote.
If the board’s version of the ban ultimately is adopted, Yeager said the county public health department will enforce the law with a $250 fine for the first violation, $500 for the second and up to $1,000 after that.
“If the restaurant industry can come up with proposals that meet the same goals, we’ll take that into consideration,” said Yeager. ”We wanted to at least give them the opportunity – and many said they are trying to do their part – to come up with something that would work.”