As a public health issue, childhood obesity is increasingly making the list of priorities among government and school officials in Montgomery County.
County Council Vice President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) took another step this week to make food suppliers that do business with the county more accountable to customers who are demanding more nutritious food, as well as educational programs on nutrition topics.
In a meeting Monday, Leventhal, chairman of the council's Health and Human Services Committee, heard about actions already taken and ideas in the works from a panel representing companies including Giant Food Inc. and Safeway Inc. and organizations such as the Restaurant Association of Maryland and the National Association of Advertisers.
The session followed a resolution Leventhal sponsored and the County Council passed in July encouraging businesses dealing with the county to respond to changing customer preferences for healthful food.
Representatives of the companies presented information about an increase in manufacturing and sales of store-brand health food products such as soy milk. In addition, they said more supermarket space is being devoted to organic foods.
"I think just the fact that we had the meeting was new," said Leventhal. "My intent was not to beat anybody over the head. . . . It was to let companies know that the tide is turning a different way."
He added, "We are part of a national movement that is trying to ring this ethical bell . . . to tell companies they should not take advantage of children's innocence to sell them food that's not good for them."
Leventhal said he does not plan to pursue any kind of legislative action. "I am just a county official," he said. "The County Council's authority is very limited on this."
His goal, he said, is to raise awareness about the issue and lead the way for other local jurisdictions seeking ways to put pressure on the food industry.
Survey results suggest that the problem of childhood obesity will continue to grow unless there is more aggressive public education and greater advertising of healthier eating habits.
In a recent study of participants in a federally funded nutrition program for women and children, Montgomery ranked as having the highest obesity rates of Maryland counties. The Women, Infants and Children program provides food, formula and nutrition education to pregnant and breast-feeding women and children up to age 5.
"We're the heaviest," said Tracy Fox, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Bethesda. "Why? That is hard to say. It may be because we're the most ethnically and economically diverse county. And we're the largest. Obviously, poor eating habits and exercise and lack of knowledge at the parent or care-provider level on the importance of nutrition at that young age have something to do with it."
While a reliable estimate of the prevalence of childhood obesity in Montgomery is not available, nationally about 16 percent of children are overweight, with a body-mass index in the 95th percentile for their age group, according to a 2002 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The CDC tracks risk-taking behaviors such as sedentary lifestyles and junk food consumption.
A recent report by the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition found that 47 percent of children reported that they did not get regular physical activity.
In the Montgomery County school system, nutritional guidelines adopted this year limit the snacks available to students to a maximum of 15 grams of sugar and seven grams of fat, two grams less fat than the Maryland state school board's recommended maximum.
A school system policy requires that vending machines selling candy or soda be turned off during school hours. Beverages available to students must contain at least 50 percent fruit juice.
The county Parent Teacher Association wants to persuade the school system to provide more physical education classes for students at every educational level.
"We may be prosperous as a county, we may be well off," said Fox, "but the bottom line is, everybody has access to unhealthy food choices, and the county is not devoid of the serious health consequences of that."