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Margaret Wente

Let them eat broccoli! Add to ...

In a daring salvo against the scourge of childhood obesity, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has declared war on the Happy Meal. From now on, the city's fast-food chains can't package toys with meals unless the meal contains fruits and vegetables, is less than 600 calories, and is low in fat and sodium. As one supervisor put it, the ruling is "part of a movement that is moving toward an agenda of food justice."

If people can't resist their own worst instincts, then the state is increasingly determined to do it for them. To impose virtue on the lower orders, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has asked the federal government for permission to bar the city's poor people from buying soda and other sugary drinks with their food stamps.

Anti-obesity initiatives are growing even faster than the public's waistlines. Doctors and public health officials are convinced that measures such as taxing soda pop, bringing back recess, legislating calorie counts on menus and reprogramming people's taste in food will stem the rising tide of blubber. As one doctor told Reuters Health, "If more people wanted healthy alternatives, [fast-food restaurants]would sell them."

Well, good luck with that.

By chance, I spent last weekend near Auburn, Mass., about an hour from Boston. Auburn is not a dining destination, but it does boast a dozen restaurants. Most are low-end pizza joints. There's one fish shack, now sadly out of season. The best dining destination within a 10-mile radius was Applebee's. So off we went.

Applebee's bills itself as the "largest casual dining chain in the world." In hundreds of middle-class towns and suburbs across the U.S. (and increasingly in Canada), it really is the best place to eat. We especially enjoyed the two-for-$20 special - two entrees with a free appetizer thrown in. The appetizer was a bowl of spinach, artichoke and cheese dip the size of a small swimming pool, with a giant heap of nachos on the side. I scarcely had room for my main course - a plate of sizzled shrimps and veg drenched in a sugar-laced ersatz Asian sauce and topped with crispy fried wontons. It wasn't bad.

It was Saturday night, and Applebee's was full. Two-thirds of the patrons were seriously large. The women's wear section at the Auburn Macy's has almost nothing in size small, and now I know why: no demand.

Applebee's offers lots of vegetables, even broccoli, and they were very good. But most people weren't eating them. Applebee's even has menu items that are 550 calories or less. No one was eating them, either. People were mostly eating deep-fried crispy shrimp, riblets swimming in barbecue sauce and eight-ounce steaks smothered in cheese with garlic mashed potatoes. For dessert, there's Triple Chocolate Meltdown, guaranteed to "erupt on first bite." The lowest calorie offering was a 100-calorie margarita, which was delicious, especially if you have two. With drinks but no dessert, our dinner for three cost a whopping $51.28.

The point is, Applebee's patrons don't give a hoot about food justice. What they want is good(ish) food, cheap. Applebee's moves more than a billion dollars worth of food a year because it's learned how to hit the sweet, fat and salty spots of middle-American palates with exquisite precision. When good(ish) food is as cheap as that, the obesity brigade doesn't stand a chance.

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