A Montgomery County councilman is considering drafting a bill next year to encourage local restaurants to serve more healthy food for children or regulate the types of toys or other items given away with meals.
Councilman George Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park said an Oct. 31 presentation on nutrition in children’s meals isn’t a precursor to any legislation on the issue. Representatives from the Center for Science in the Public Interest spoke to the council’s Health and Human Services Committee, which Leventhal chairs.
The session was purely informational for the committee and could help shape any potential legislation, Leventhal said.
Some jurisdictions have banned toys with children’s meals and the county would have the authority to pursue such legislation, but no such legislation is being proposed here, he said.
He said the meeting was a chance for the center to present research on what he called the “unfair and predatory enticement” of children, as companies put toys into unhealthy meals and advertise their products during children’s programming.
The problem of childhood obesity brought on partly by unhealthy restaurant meals is of “epic proportions,” said Council President Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) of Silver Spring, who serves on the committee.
Americans are eating out about twice as much as they were 30 or more years ago, and children today get about 25 percent of their total calories from restaurant food, said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
A typical child’s meal in a restaurant has about twice as many calories as a meal at home, she said.
In 2008, about 1 percent of children’s meals at the country’s top chain restaurants were not too high in fat, salt or calories, and didn’t have enough fruits and vegetables, Wootan said.
By 2012, that number had only increased to 3 percent.
“For parents, finding a healthy meal at a restaurant is like finding a needle in a haystack,” she said.
The restaurant industry accepts its role in promoting healthy eating and has been changing recipes and menus to help, said Joy Dubost, director of nutrition for the National Restaurant Association.
Customers have been asking for healthier options for children, she said.
“I think the consumer demand piece is an important part of this,” Dubost said.
She said the association has been encouraging its members to provide at least one children’s meal that meets the standards for health.
Officials would prefer a change through consumer pressure rather than legislation, said Councilman Craig Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown.
“If it doesn’t happen fast enough ... at some point, we have to step in and say we need to push this along a little bit more,” he said.