California county votes to ban the use of toys to attract kids to unhealthy fast food meals

In August, Santa Clara County in California may become the nation’s first municipality to ban the use of toys in marketing high fat, high sodium fast food to kids. On May 11th the county board passed the final vote needed to ban the toys that typically accompany children’s meals in fast food chains such as McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s if those meals do no meet certain nutritional standards set forth by the Institute on Medicine.

For example, in order to come with a toy, a meal would have to have less than 485 calories and 600 mg of sodium (1). By way of comparison, the nutritional contents of several standard kids’ meals are as follows:

A McDonald’s Happy Meal of Cheeseburger, 12 ounce Sprite, and small french fries


640 calories

24 grams fat

940 mg sodium

35 grams sugar

A Burger King Kids’ Meal with Cheeseburger, 12 ounce Sprite, and apple slices


490 calories

16 grams fat

800 mg sodium

45 grams sugar

A Wendy’s Kids’ Meal with Crispy Chicken sandwich, 12 ounce Hi-C fruit punch, and kids’ french fries


620 calories

22 grams fat

970 mg sodium

27 grams sugar

The fast food companies respond

The ordinance applies to all 150 or so restaurants in the unincorporated areas of Santa Clara County, but only about a dozen of these restaurants are fast food outlets that tend to offer free toys with children’s meals. The California Restaurant Association, which represents the interests of fast food companies, has launched an aggressive campaign to prevent the new ordinance from taking effect. McDonald’s and other corporations are fearful that the ban could lead other municipalities to enact similar rules. The campaign has run misleading full-page advertisements in local newspapers asking for constituents to contact their representatives. As noted by the California Restaurant Association’s director of local affairs, “It sets a tone. It could have a domino effect.” Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit wrote in a recent blog post about the ban, “I’ve been saying for years that it’s only a matter of time until some city or county figures out that a simple change in law is all that’s needed to make such promotions illegal at the local level. Localities have tremendous public health authority that is often underutilized.”

Fast food companies’ use of fictional characters

McDonald’s and Burger King have by far the worst track records when it comes to using popular fictional characters to peddle toxic foods. According to a recent Congressional report described in the Los Angeles Times, food companies spent about $1.6 billion in 2006 in marketing foods to children, and about $360 million of this sum was spent on the toys that come with kids’ meals. McDonald’s Corporation held an exclusive 10-year contract with Disney from 1996 to 2006, and Burger King currently has a contract with DreamWorks and Nickelodeon for co-branding (2). Both McDonald’s and Burger King use clever advertising techniques to capture children’s attention, leading them to use their “pester power” to bring their parents and families to fast food restaurants so that they can collect all of the toys. See Burger King’s website for kids here, and McDonald’s website for kids here.

Health advocates and parents grow concerned about the use of toys to sell junk food

While the fast food giants are trying to spin the issue as a matter of government officials taking decisions away from parents, or as excessive government meddling, many parents welcome the proposal, though their feelings can be complex. Comments from popular parents’ websites are a testament to this. For instance, a comment on CafeMom reads, “I’m mixed on this. . . I just wish they would stop running commercials. I do not allow my son to eat fast food but it’s getting harder cuz of their stupid commercials showing what toys they are offering.”

The county supervisor behind the proposed ordinance, Ken Yeager, told the New York Times that the new law would “level the playing field by taking away the incentive to choose fatty, sugary foods over healthier options.” Yaeger noted that “This ordinance breaks the link between unhealthy food and prizes. It helps parents make the choices they want for their children without toys and other freebies luring them toward food that fails to meet basic nutritional standards.”

While many have credited the California county with pioneering the move to ban toys in promoting fast foods, it should be noted that similar bans have been proposed in other countries where childhood obesity is of concern, such as in England in 2008, and in Brazil and Spain in 2009.

Lauren Evans is a writer for Corporations and Health Watch and student in the Doctor of Public Health program at the City University of New York.


  1. According to a press release dated 4/27/10 from Santa Clara County: “Restaurants cannot use toys as rewards for buying foods that have excessive calories (more than 120 for a beverage, 200 for a single food item, or 485 for a meal), excessive sodium (480 mg for a single food item or 600 mg for a meal), excessive fat (more than 35% of total calories from fat), or excessive sugar (more than 10% of calories from added sweeteners). The criteria are based on nationally recognized standards for children’s health created by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and recommendations for children’s food published by the Institute of Medicine (IOM).”
  2. Institute on Medicine of the National Academies. Food Marketing to Children and Youth. Washington DC: The National Academies Press; 2006.

Image Credits:

  1. Amanky
  2. graciepoo