Mandatory menu item is a simplistic and ineffective attempt to eat healthy
In January, several Montgomery County Council members proposed a new “healthy meals for kids” mandate for restaurants. In an effort to instill healthy eating habits in young people, the bill would legally require restaurants to offer a meal that meets specific nutritional goals.
The proposal is well intentioned. But realistically, it’s unlikely to work, an overreach of county government and — focusing on punishing local businesses instead of supporting families — fundamentally wrong.
The policy proposal absolutely addresses a legitimate public health concern for our community.
Maryland has the 10and-the highest childhood obesity rate in the nation and 8.6% of high school students in our county were overweight in 2018-2019. Studies show that children who grow up with obesity are more likely to become obese adults and experience even worse health problems, such as disease, stroke, diabetes and certain cancers.
Addressing this challenge by forcing restaurants to offer only one “healthy” meal for children is a casual response to this serious and deadly problem.
First of all, it just won’t work. It’s unclear how requiring only one “healthy” option on menus achieves the policy’s goal of “creating healthy habits throughout life.” A healthy item on a menu certainly doesn’t mean that anyone will order that option or that it will be affordable.
A restaurant could simply offer a $100 lettuce sandwich with a glass of milk that no one will ever order and that will have no impact on a child’s healthy habits, while respecting the policy.
The guidelines set by the board do not even guarantee that the new option will be sound. A McDonald’s “Happy Meal” – with a burger and fries on the side – plus toast on the side would significantly exceed the policy’s proposed nutritional thresholds. (See the nutritional breakdown at the end of this article).
This almost certainly unproductive policy will come at the cost of a disconcerting excess of county government.
Restaurants in our community are struggling. The pandemic has been overwhelming for every business in the county, but especially for family restaurants that have struggled to stay open, hire and bounce back. To place an additional bureaucratic burden on these small businesses with the threat of financial penalties is, to say the least, deaf.
Even in normal times, our county should not meddle in what private companies choose to offer on their menus, and certainly not with the force of law and fines.
Then there is the matter of application. Will county health inspectors be equipped with calorimeter bombs to enter restaurants, ask which menu item is the “healthy option,” then measure its percentage of calories from fat?
Or, more likely, will it become another soon-to-be-forgotten law that was great for optics when it was passed, but isn’t enforced until needed to warrant punishment from someone ?
Obesity in our county will not be solved by restaurant menu changes, not even a little. To truly make progress on healthy eating in Montgomery County, our county leaders should focus on the real issue: access to healthy food.
The faulty assumption at the heart of the proposed law is that too many children are not eating healthy, when the real challenge facing our community is that too many children cannot.
Healthy foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, are expensive. Processed and unhealthy foods with preservatives are cheap and don’t spoil as quickly.
Instead of attacking restaurants, the county council should directly subsidize families to buy the fresh produce needed to eat healthy at home.
The county government should work with our community’s incredible network of farmers’ markets to make sure every vendor accepts government food assistance in an easy way, then invest in public service announcements promoting these markets.
Our county could also work with these local farms and with schools to send produce home with the children at the end of each week.
And if the county is serious about instilling healthy eating habits in young people, it should start with the meals students actually eat every day in our county’s public schools. With all of our access to local agricultural producers, our county can do so much better to provide food that is both nutritious and appealing.
The County Board should commit to eating the same breakfast and lunch as MCPS students every day until students agree that the meals are not only healthy, but good enough to inspire excitement. love for healthy food which is supposed to be the goal of the council’s proposed restaurant mandate.
With limited time and resources, our county government should focus on policies that won’t burden already struggling businesses, that will uplift families, and that actually work.
Review of a Happy Meal
Here’s how a McDonald’s Happy Meal with a side of bread qualifies as “healthy” under the nutrition requirements proposed by the Montgomery County Healthy Meals Act:
- The law limits healthy meals to 600 calories. A Happy Meal has 475 and the slice of bread has 70, making the total meal 545 calories — in accordance with legal requirements.
- The law limits healthy meals to 700 milligrams of sodium. A Happy Meal has 695 and the slice of bread has 0, making the total meal 695 milligrams of sodium — in accordance with legal requirements.
- The law limits healthy meals to 35% of calories from fat. A Happy Meal has 144 calories from fat, and the slice of bread has 15. Together, the meal has 159 calories from fat. Divided by the 545 total calories of the meal, the total meal has 29% of calories from fat — in accordance with legal requirements
- The law limits healthy meals to 10% of calories from saturated fat. A Happy Meal has 5 grams of saturated fat and the slice of bread has 0, so the total meal has 5 grams of saturated fat. To determine the calories from saturated fat in the total meal, multiply the amount of saturated fat by 9, or 45 calories, then divide by the meal’s total 545 calories. The total is 2% calories from saturated fat — in accordance with legal requirements.
- The law limits healthy meals to 0.5 grams of trans fat. A Happy Meal and a piece of bread have 0 grams of trans fat — in accordance with legal requirements.
- The law limits healthy meals to 35% of calories from total sugars. A Happy Meal contains 21 grams of sugar and the slice of bread contains 0. Together, the meal contains 21 grams of sugar. To determine the calories of sugar, multiply the amount of sugar by 4, or 84 calories. Divide that by the total 545 meal calories to get 4% calories from sugar — in accordance with legal requirements.
- The law requires healthy meals to contain 1% milk, which is included with a Happy Meal
- The law requires healthy meals to include half a cup of unfried fruit. A Happy Meal includes a bag of sliced apples.
- The law requires healthy meals to include a whole grain product, which would be covered by whole wheat bread.
- The law requires healthy meals to include lean protein, including 1% milk, which is included with a Happy Meal.
Rising Voices is an occasional column by John F. Kennedy High School graduate Nate Tinbite; Ananya Tadikonda, a graduate of Richard Montgomery High School; and Matt Post, a graduate of Sherwood High School. All three are recent student members of the Montgomery County School Board.
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