‘Happy Meals’ bill divides Council, raises broader questions
A City Council proposal to regulate foods that come with toys split members of the health committee on Tuesday and raised broader issues over what the de Blasio administration can and should do to combat childhood obesity.
Ben Kallos, a Democrat from Manhattan, would like meals that are marketed to kids using toys or other promotional items include a serving of fruit, vegetables or whole grain. The so-called Happy Meals bill would also require that meals be limited to 500 calories, with fewer than 35 percent them coming from fat, fewer than 10 percent coming from saturated fat, fewer than 10 percent from added sugars and fewer than 600 milligrams of sodium.
Kallos cited a 2014 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which found more than one-in-five New York City children were obese, which the city’s health department believes leads to heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions.
“If we continue down this path, children in New York City will have shorter expected life spans than their parents,” Kallos said. “That’s not just depressing, that’s not acceptable.”
The de Blasio administration opposed the law, saying it would be too difficult to enforce.
There is no good way to know, for example, how many calories from fat are in a kid’s meal, said Sonia Angell, a deputy commissioner at the health department.
Proponents and critics of the proposed legislation agreed New York City children have an obesity problem.
The question left unresolved after three hours of discussion and testimony was what should be done to address that problem.
The city health department has long condemned unhealthy foods — particularly sugar, salt and fat — and has worked to limit their intake in schools and day care centers.
During the last 15 years, the health department has pushed for calorie counts on menus, banned trans-fats, called for warnings on foods containing too much sodium and, most notably, tried to limit the size of sugary drinks.
The "soda ban" was struck down when the New York State Court of Appeals ruled the Board of Health should have deferred to the City Council.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he supports the portion cap rule, prompting health committee Chairman Corey Johnson, a co-sponsor with Kallos, to ask why the mayor then had not introduced a new bill to that effect.
“We would support the portion cap rule, legislatively,” said Tom Merrill, the health department’s general counsel. “The ball is in your court.”
So far, no Council member has introduced a bill to limit the portion size of sugary drinks.
A spokeswoman for the de Blasio administration said, “the administration has discussed, and will continue to discuss, the negative impact of sugary drinks and measures to combat overweight and obesity with the Council.”
Pushing through any kind of legislation that limits the amount of soda and other sugary beverages New Yorkers can drink would be a heavy lift, particularly because Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito opposed the original health department rule, saying it was “onerous.”
Kallos' bill drew a mixed reaction from his colleagues and pitted health advocates against business groups.
The measure was supported by the American Heart Association, which wants the City Council to go even further, applying this rule to all kids’ meals, not only those that offer a toy.
NYU Langone researcher Brian Elbel also testified in support of the measure, saying he studied receipts from purchases for children, and found 98 percent of those did not meet the nutritional criteria outlined in the legislation.
If they had, kids would be consuming 54 fewer calories, 10 percent less sodium, and a 10 percent fewer calories from fat. Kallos’ bill was predictably opposed by McDonald’s and the city’s Chambers of Commerce, which complained it would place an undue burden on franchise owners across the city.
The bill would “impede small businesses,” said Thomas Grech, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce.
The NAACP, which receives contributions from McDonald’s, also opposed the bill. It also opposed the portion cap rule.
Opposition also came from members of the health committee.
Councilman Peter Koo, a Democrat from Queens, said feeding children healthy food is a responsibility that “belongs to the family.”
“All these problems, the main responsibility belongs to the parents and grandparents for how they feed their children, not for us to pass a law,” Koo said. “This is a free market system.”
Councilman Jimmy Vacca, a Democrat from the Bronx, said government telling someone you cannot have a toy if you buy a Happy Meal is not going to help the city achieve its goals of reducing obesity.
“It’s the arm of government coming in,” he said.
He’d prefer to see a comprehensive effort from the health department that forces fast-food restaurants to change what they serve.
“Let them know this can’t exist in our city,” he said. “We want accountability. No one has been called to task on this. What are we going to do about it?”