Crystal Perez is secretary of the Maryland Public Health Association.
We don’t need to let this crisis go to waste.
As policymakers around the country struggle to pass legislation that will help families, Prince George’s County Council is considering a healthy kids’ meal bill that would help make healthy options easy choices for children and their families while dining in county restaurants.
With passage of this bill, restaurants would make healthier beverage choices the default options on kids’ menus. Several other localities and states have implemented similar default beverage laws, including Baltimore. This bill would ensure that food options in kids’ meals offered in Prince George’s County would limit calories, salt, sugar and fat.
So why am I suggesting that Prince George’s County is moving in the right direction with a nutrition bill at this time?
Poor nutrition, especially frequent consumption of sugary drinks, is one of the underlying causes for several chronic diseases including obesity, Type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and heart disease. As of 2017, more than 30 percent of Prince George’s County high school students were at a weight considered unhealthy. In addition, more than one in five adults in the county has high blood pressure. This is especially pertinent now, as these chronic diseases increase the risk of acquiring, experiencing long-term complications or dying from the coronavirus.
Study after study shows that healthier food choices lead to healthier diets, which lead to lower susceptibility to chronic diseases. By considering legislation that aims to make the food environment healthier, Prince George’s County is working to reduce health disparities for children and future generations of community members. With its passage, when children and parents order kids’ meals, there would be delicious healthier options available for them to choose.
This bill can also impact the health inequities faced by families of color. The sugar-sweetened beverage and junk food industries spend millions on relentless marketing, specifically to children. This has led to higher sugary drink consumption rates among low-income youths and non-Hispanic, Black and Mexican American children and teens, especially in inner cities, where the fast food industry flourishes. As a result, children of color are at greater risk of and have higher rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
For some children, the fast food restaurants around them are the closest food resource they have. Most kids’ meals at the most popular restaurants are packed with calories, salt, sugar and saturated fat. As a result, not only is Prince George’s County trying to make the food environment healthier for all families, it also is addressing some of the inequities facing our Black and Brown children by leveling the playing field with this policy. This ordinance would take the first step to ensure that minimum nutritional standards are met so every child can have a healthier kids’ meal option, not just kids in higher socioeconomic classes or cities.
Research tells us that voluntary industry efforts rarely result in meaningful change in favor of public health. When it does result in some change, it often takes a bigger player in the game, such as McDonald’s, to move the industry. However, this is a slow process. Our families can’t wait. They want healthier options for their children now.
The fast food and sugary-beverage industries have a leg up on parents. Their marketing research has resulted in an unfair fight with parents who are trying to make better choices for their children. Passing this ordinance has the potential to allow Prince George’s County to lead the change to create healthier options for children in restaurants rather than industry. This is the leverage American families need to get the fast food industry to make the smart changes parents want.
Creating this standard could also set an example for the rest of the nation and make Prince George’s County a leader in establishing health policy. When the government hasn’t been stepping up, we can look to the county council and County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (D) to do the right thing for the community and for American families.