The XX Factor

Free the Hamburglar!

To jump in on the fast-food conversation : In the battle between McDonald’s and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, I’m coming down wholeheartedly on the side of Grimace and the Hamburglar. If you look at the fact that childhood obesity doubled from 1979, the year the Happy Meal came out , to 1999, it would be easy to point the finger at the evil Ronald McDonald and his gang. But it would also be woefully inadequate. Television watching has increased exponentially since that time, and the late 1970s are also when cable TV and video games debuted, followed not long after by VCRs and then DVD players.

At the risk of sounding like an old codger … when I was growing up, not only did we have to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow, but we had a narrow window of time for cartoon-watching. Scooby Doo was on when we got home from school and the Flintstones after that, and that was about all I wanted to watch. And we had to watch shows when they were on or go find something else to do. Now, with DVDs and DVRs and Netflix (streaming AND in your mailbox), there is not a moment when kids can’t find SOMETHING to watch. That doesn’t mean that parents have to let the kids do so. I’m just saying that there are a ton of lazy-making tools for obesifying kids these days. If you’re going to punish McDondald’s for catering to kids, are you also going to restrict how much programming the networks can air targeted to children? Are you going to tell Nintendo that they can release only so many games rated “E for everyone”? Amanda, you’re right that children shouldn’t have to suffer for their parents’ inability to step up and say no, but it’s not fair to blame one company or one industry for a disease that has a multitude of causes. That just lets the parents off the hook.

Outside of the food deserts that Neela writes about, it’s very easy for most working- and middle-class families NOT to take their kids to McDonald’s or otherwise fill them with junk: You just don’t go. Even in our two-career, three-child household, we probably hit a fast-food restaurant a half-dozen times a year or fewer, generally when we’re driving down lonely highways during summer vacation. (That doesn’t mean my kids are eating gourmet vegetarian fare. But they are eating at home.) Just the other day we took the kids to see Toy Story 3 and walked RIGHT PAST the concession stand with its barrels of popcorn, brick-sized candy bars, and buckets of soda. Somehow, we survived.

Further, I concur with Neela that banning the Happy Meal would have absolutely zero effect on childhood obesity. If parents are taking their kids to fast-food joints, it’s likely as much about the convenience and the price as it is about the Beanie Babies or the latest Shrek toy. Even if you take away the toys, there aren’t many kids who are going to turn down chicken nuggets and fries. Or a cheeseburger.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest in many ways reminds me of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood , which laments that parents have to tell their kids no when they ask for toys or to watch PG-13 movies because the evil corporations market to them. They say they want to protect children, but all they’re really doing is infantilizing parents.

Photograph by Kristian Dowling/Getty Images News.