Should McDonald's--and Burger King, et al--be forced to alter their menus and marketing for kids? We know the Center of Science in the Public Interest thinks it should. We know Sarah Palin, and many others, disagree. Now the battle is about to head to that glorious arena where we Americans like to fight about all of our policy disagreements: the courtroom. The CSPI has finally found itself a plaintiff: Monet Parham, who says she "can say no all day long, but they see commercials that convince them that you've really got have this." Parham is also willing to put her 6-year-old daughter on camera, talking about why she likes Happy Meals and the toys that come with them. She's suing McDonald's with the CSPI's help , seeking not a monetary settlement, but a change in McDonald's marketing practices.
No papers have yet been made public, so we can't debate the legality of whatever grounds Parham and the CSPI feel they have to challenge McDonald's marketing. But the basis for the lawsuit won't ever be the real question. Rules and regulations aside, who's really to blame when kids eat badly-parents or marketers? The obvious answer is parents, who can, at least in theory, say no. That's an easy argument for someone like me to make--I live half an hour's drive from the nearest fast food, in an area with no billboards and a house with children whose TV is limited. Saying "no" to McDonald's--and, when we want to, yes--isn't an issue.
But people "like me" often say, well, what about the person who's not "like me?" I'd bet most of the people involved in the CSPI have exactly no trouble telling their kids they won't be pulling through a drive-thru tonight. They might tell you they're concerned about people who work too hard all day to say no to their kids, or don't realize the food is bad for them, or don't have the time or money to put together better options. That kind of patronizing rhetoric that makes many of us cringe, and it's one reason most Americans don't favor what they perceive as additional government intrusion into what we can and can't eat. But this isn't really a debate about parenting skills, screen time, or class or brains or whatever else we can drag into it. It's a seemingly simple question, hidden under a lot of societal baggage. What do we do about that fact that kids, for reasons we don't even have to define, are clearly eating more and emptier calories, often in the form of heavily marketed fast and junk foods, than they should?
I find that a tougher question. It's easy to mock Monet Parham, who can't say no to her daughter. But abandoning her daughter to her mother's self-described ineffective parenting strategies is more troubling. I've written before that if I want to buy my kid five thousand empty calories and a cheap toy, I have every right to do so. I have, similarly, the right to kill myself with cigarettes and alcohol at my discretion. But my rights aren't really the issue. Does Parham's 6-year-old daughter have some kind of right not to be encouraged to want what's not good for her, or for the government to somehow prevent, or at least discourage, her mother's handing her a daily Happy Meal? And down the slippery slope we go.
Paired with the announcement of this lawsuit comes a Yale study that says the fast food giants aren't even doing all they claim to be with respect to offering, and marketing, healthier options to kids. They show healthy choices in their ads, but fail to offer them at the counter, handing over, for example, french fries as an assumption rather than offering the alternative apple slice choice. They also don't promote the healthier choices themselves, but the toys that come with any meal. Despite a pledge to improve marketing to children, both Burger King and McDonald's "increased their volume of TV advertising from 2007 to 2009," and the net result was that preschoolers, like the rest of us, saw more ads.
I'm opposed to adding additional regulations requiring fast food companies to act against their own self-interest. I'd rather see McDonald's and its ilk make appropriate business decisions (including those regarding corporate responsibility) while parents make appropriate parenting decisions--in theory. But I'm having some trouble lining up my preferred theory with the facts: more kids eating more and more less healthy food, parents be damned, and businesses more focused on the bottom line than on keeping customers healthy enough to live to eat another day. I suspect this lawsuit is ridiculous. But the problem it's trying to reach is one we're eventually going to have to resolve.
Photograph by Fritz Saalfeld from Wikimedia Commons.