The 436th Session of the General Assembly of Maryland convened on Jan. 13. As always there are many issues to be addressed and much debate to follow in attempts to improve our state’s economy, environment, educational system and the health of our citizens. Nothing is more important now and in our future than the health our citizens, especially our school children. This is a core issue as it impacts not only our people and their quality of life but the plethora of issues facing our state, including the enormous costs to our treasury of an epidemic of childhood obesity and type II diabetes. Healthy School Food Maryland has proposed commonsense solutions to address these issues.
Controlling Added Sugar in School Meals
A recent study that looked at the rate of diabetes at the population level showed that for every extra 150 calories of sugar consumed per day, there was a 1.1 percent rise in the rate of diabetes. This correlation was so strong that it meets certain scientific criteria for causation. Since 1980, obesity prevalence among children and adolescents has almost tripled, leading to a lifetime of chronic illnesses. The cost of health care for obese adults is 42 percent more than adults at a healthy weight.
According to the CDC, if the trend in childhood obesity continues, one in three children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives. 10.1 percent of Maryland adults already have diabetes. People with diagnosed diabetes, on average, have medical expenditures approximately 2.3 times higher than those without diabetes, 62.4 percent of which falls to government programs to pay.
Our school cafeterias are one place where excess added sugars should not be found, but unfortunately, the opposite is true. A review of one week of breakfasts in the classroom in a Montgomery County Public School showed daily added sugars ranging between 7.5 and 12.5 teaspoons.
The value of a wholesome and healthy diet cannot be understated. Not eating and drinking the right foods can leave children sluggish, uninspired, and contributes to the considerable achievement gap in our schools. The Sensible Sugar in Schools Act (SB65) addresses this issue by requiring school districts to reduce the amount of added sugar in school meals and snacks to the levels recommended by the American Heart Association. Plans to accomplish this in each district would be written by a committee including parents, students, educators, nonprofit organizations and medical professionals and would become part of each district’s wellness policy.
Transparency about Snack Foods Sold in Schools
Secondly, the School Food Transparency Act aims to help parents become knowledgeable about unhealthy foods being offered but not identified on school lunch menus. Federal and state regulations, as well as local wellness policies, govern the general parameters of the foods and beverages that can be sold in public schools. While these regulations eliminate some of the least healthy foods for children (e.g., candy, soda and deep-fried items), they still allow for the sale of a large variety of processed, unhealthy foods. This typically includes cookies, ice cream, chips, and “fruit” snacks (aka gummies). These foods are even sold at the elementary level in some public school districts in Maryland. Parents are usually unaware of the availability of these items or that children can purchase these items using their lunch account.
The School Food Transparency Act would require school districts to list these items on their menus. It is time our school districts provide this information so parents can help their children make better choices in the school cafeteria, and we need our state legislators to make this happen. I urge the General Assembly and Governor Hogan to support these two legislative proposals: 1) SB 65 - The Sensible Sugar in Schools Act and (2) HB109 - The School Food Transparency Act. Both of these bills incur minimal or no cost to the schools and state government, yet can provide the opportunity to save hundreds of millions of dollars in future health care costs, prevent human suffering, and enable parents to have the knowledge they need to help their children make healthy choices. Let your representatives know you support these bills.
Edward Jon Guss, of Potomac, is board pesident of the Chesapeake Institute for Local Sustainable Food and Agriculture and Advisory Board Member of Real Food for Kids - Montgomery.