Thursday, April 29, 2010

Santa Clara County makes me happy

I have no desire to live in California. I like Ohio, with (among other things) its four distinct seasons, affordable homes, short commute times, and abundant supply of fresh water. (Not to mention that I'm a complete homebody.)

But right now, I'm envious of the folks in Santa Clara County, which has just banned toys in Happy Meals and the like. Their reason, they claim, is that they don't want to reward children for making poor food choices. To me, that's only the tip of the iceberg.

In my experience, the toys bribe children to choose those restaurants in the first place. If our schedule is such that a run through the drive-thru is inevitable, the girls lobby for one place over the other based on who has which toys. (And if we're just going out to eat somewhere, the girls do the same – they just get vetoed by Mommy and Daddy, who prefer something that more closely resembles "real" food.)

Folks argue that this is unwarranted government intrusion. Parents, they say, are free to not feed their children fast food. We can even ban our children from watching TV so they aren't bombarded with ads touting one fast-food toy or the other. I suspect these folks don't have kids. And if they do, and they've never caved when faced with whiny kids in the back of the van, with a couple hours of running errands and playing taxi behind them and a couple more to go, I, for one, would like to know the secret behind their iron will.

But, as I said, rewarding poor food choices is the tip of the iceberg, and bribery into poor restaurant choices is just the next layer down. Because the reason those restaurant choices are poor isn't just the fat, sodium and calories that the folks in Santa Clara worry about, it's the limited food choices: hamburger or cheeseburger or bits of breaded chicken.

They've become ingrained in our culture as "what kids eat." On my kids' school lunch menu, one of this trinity, or a hot dog, or cheese pizza on Fridays ('cause we're a Catholic school) is offered every day of the week as a backup choice. We didn't have backup choices when I went to school, but these days, there are kids who won't eat anything else. Heck, there are kids who won't eat a breaded chicken patty until you explain that it's just a giant chicken nugget. So, at least once a week, the main choice is also from this limited list. You can have a hamburger or a hot dog, chicken nuggets or a cheeseburger. So many kids are picky eaters to begin with; it's murder trying to get them to expand their food horizons when their peers have convinced them that these are the only things that "taste good."

Public pressure got fast-food places to offer fruit as an alternative to fries; I'm sure if more standards were imposed on kids' meals, they could come up with healthier ones. And as for the kids who've been conditioned to choose burger or burger or nugget, a few years ago, researchers at Stanford University (that's in Santa Clara County, folks – but not covered by the ban, which only extends to the unincorporated areas) discovered that children preferred food (even carrots) in McDonald's packaging to identical food in plain packaging. If McDonald's sold carrots, kids would eat 'em.

But if they did that, they might still offer the doggoned toys! They're just clutter, but my girls treat them as if they're gold. When they were smaller, I donated them liberally to the preschool prize box, but their grade school has no such thing. So now, the girls are each (supposedly) limited to the contents of one lidded bucket. The buckets have been great to have for trips – they could leave the whole thing behind, for all I care. However, I said "supposedly" because, as we've been mucking out Alpha's room, I've found enough more to fill a second bucket at least, and I imagine I'll find the same in Beta's room.

So we get to winnow yet again. And what do we do with the toys we cull? Despite being mostly disposable plastic junk, they're not marked for recycling. So we get to fill more landfills, and China gets keep its exports to the U.S. high. Hmm... maybe the next time I'm asked "girl toy or boy toy," I'll say, "no toy" – if I can endure the screaming.

Apologies to those kind folks who commented on recent posts, only to have their comments go unpublished for so long. The DSL's been acting up yet again, and I was only able to moderate the comments today.

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