Photograph courtesy of Rich Lyons.

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Legislative politics in San Francisco tend toward the strange. But yesterday afternoon, when item 101096 (Setting Nutritional Standards for Restaurant Food Sold Accompanied by Toys or Other Youth Focused Incentive Items) was passed by the Board of Supervisors with a veto-proof majority, it was a swift, and anticlimactic, end to one of the odder political sagas of this year.

“It was the first time I’d ever seen the opposition spend so much money to try to defeat such a modest measure,” says Linshao Chin, a legislative aide to Eric Mar, and the measure’s primary author. “For some of their meals, they could actually just throw in a few bags of carrot sticks and meet the criteria,” says Chin. “But I got the impression that the issue for them was how much that would cost, really.”

Most memorably, there was the meeting on September 27 when Karen Wells, McDonald’s vice president of nutrition and menu strategy, appeared before the Land Use & Economic Development Committee as though beamed from the year 1980, greyhound thin and clad in a beautifully tailored red power suit. 101096 could not be passed, she said, because it undermined parental authority. And because it was about taking away toys from children.

McDonald’s also flew out Bonnie Modugno, a McDonald’s consultant. During a visit to a local high school with Bevan Dufty, Modugno grew upset when a pregnant teenager mentioned eating a burrito. “She said that in her opinion McDonald’s was more nutritious than a burrito because the tortilla is all carbs and there’s no protein,” said Chin. “I don’t know what she thinks beans are.”

Then there were the women day laborers from La Raza arguing for the measure, and the Chinese senior citizens arguing against it, with such cheerful Dada-esque elan and lack of concern for what they were actually saying that it was pretty clear that something was up.

Senior citizen: I would like to say that if she would go to the McDonald’s, the toy is enjoying. They are very close to the conversation and you’re close to the conversation. I am happy, Sue.

Eric Mar: Thank you very much. What district are you from?

Senior citizen: One district of San Francisco.

Eric Mar: What district?

Senior citizen: Thank you very much.

The going rumor was that McDonald’s had hired them from somewhere out of town, not realizing that it would seem suspicious to bring in a group of Mandarin speakers to a meeting in a primarily Cantonese-speaking area.

If anything, McDonald’s reaction to the legislation only solidified the board into a virtually unified front against it. The vegetable portion of the standard, originally three-fourths of a cup, was down to a half-cup at the Land Use & Economic Development Committee meeting. When it passed, it was up to three-fourths of a cup again.

It’s a delicately written piece of legislation, not banning objects like the Happy Meal toy outright, but insisting that they only be paired with meals that contain certain foods. Come December of next year, restaurants will only be allowed to do toy giveaways in combination with food that meets the nutritional criteria currently used by the San Francisco Unified School District.

Those criteria are pretty much the same as the ones currently required for school lunches. Enforcement, according to Chin, will be the business of the Department of Public Health. It will involve a complaint line, where those inclined will be able to call 311 and report illicit toy-givers.

The Department of Public Health is understaffed when it comes to restaurant inspectors, and the legislation has no provision for hiring anyone extra to deal with the new workload. What does the future hold for this measure, in all its idealism? The next act begins in December.

In case you’re curious:

Video of the September 27 meeting.
And a very rough transcript here.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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