Telling people how to eat not the answer

Published 11:27 am Friday, November 5, 2010

New York has been the epicenter of food rules during the past decade or so, ranging from the city’s ban on saturated fats in restaurant foods to various attempts by politicians to control people’s salt and soft drink intake.

When the government feels it should tell people what they can — or, more accurately, can’t — eat and drink, we’re living in a very weird place.

Fortunately, that weirdness has not really traveled very far inland from the East. The bad news this week, however, is that the wave of food weirdness will now also be traveling this way from the West Coast, where San Francisco has decided that its 11-member city board of supervisors knows best when it comes to what people should eat.

Email newsletter signup

There, on an 8-3 vote, the supervisors passed an ordinance which forbids restaurants from giving away toys with meals unless the meals meet city standards for the number of calories and the amount of salt and fat.

In other words, no more Happy Meals in San Francisco.

There is so much wrong with this that is hard to know where to start.

Let’s begin with the idea that it is better for the city supervisors to decide on children’s diets than for their parents to decide.

Nobody doubts that living on a diet of Happy Meals – and their equivalents at other fast food chains – might not be the best idea. But is it truly harmful for a child to have a treat once in awhile?

Sure, there are families that don’t know — or don’t care —- about the difference between good nutrition and bad. But why should everyone else lose their right to eat as they choose?

It’s also questionable whether striking out at a specific fast food issue does anything except send a message. American children’s health problems are not related specifically — or even mostly — to fast food meals. They’re related to a lifestyle which, in most cases, involves little outdoor play or activity, lots of computer and television time, and constant access to snacks and unhealthy food at home.

I heard a term this week that exemplifies the real problem. Very few American children are, anymore, “free-range kids.” Instead, like the vast majority of chickens raised in our country, they’re kept inside under close supervision, with limited freedom to move and plenty to eat.

A couple of generations ago, when kids spent a lot of time running free around the neighborhood, or helping with chores, it hardly mattered what they ate. They burned a lot of calories and they were, in any case, too busy to do much snacking. They certainly weren’t cooped up in the presence of endless food. Now, the opposite is true.

The changes in our society that turned free-range kids into “confinement kids” transcend the issues of exercise and diet. And they’re not likely to soon be solved.

Certainly the San Francisco city government’s attempt to “fix” nutrition by taking a slap at a well-known commercial product is misguided — so misguided as to be useless.

It’s so misguided, in fact, that rather than achieve any positive results, the new ordinance is going to actually cause harm to a whole lot of businesses and the people who work there. But that’s what happens when people who think they know best about everything try to put their self-assigned superiority into action, particularly when it comes to social engineering.

The man or woman who is smart enough to tinker with one part of Americans’ lifestyles without causing unintended consequences in another part has probably not yet been born. He or she certainly does not serve in the San Francisco (or New York or Minneapolis or Austin) city government.

It remains to be seen just how bad an idea San Francisco’s experiment with fast food rules is going to be. All we know now is that it is going to be bad. And all we can do, from here, is hope the trend doesn’t spread.