How children’s meals at fast food and other types of restaurants contribute to obesity in children was the focus of an Oct. 31 worksession held by the County Council’s Health and Human Services Committee. The worksession included a presentation from representatives of the nutrition policy section of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which has produced a report entitled, “Kids’ Meals: Obesity on the Menu.”
The HHS Committee, which is chaired by Councilmember George Leventhal and includes Councilmembers Nancy Navarro and Craig Rice, started the worksession by stating it did not call for the discussion based on any developing legislation. Committee members said they wanted to learn more about the findings of CSPI and how restaurants in the County were trying to address the issue on their own initiative.
Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy for CSPI, was among those attending the worksession. Also in attendance was Michaeline Fedder, president of MD HEAL (Maryland Healthy Eating and Active Lifestyle Coalition, Inc.); Melvin Thompson, senior vice president for governmental affairs and public policy for the Restaurant Association of Maryland; Joan Rector McGlockton, vice president for food policy for the National Restaurant Association; and Joy Dubost, director of nutrition for the National Restaurant Association.
The report "Kids' Meals: Obesity on the Menu" states that many restaurant chains offer menu items especially for, and marketed to, children. Research has shown that children consume on average 25 percent of their daily calories at fast-food and other restaurants, meaning the nutritional quality of those meals is important. The report investigates the types of children's menu items and the nutritional quality of children's meals at the largest restaurant chains in the United States.
“Fast food restaurants use toys and other sophisticated marketing techniques to peddle food to children that isn't good for them,” said Councilmember Leventhal. “Children are not equipped to make wise consumer choices in their own best interest. This is a serious ethical problem. The Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 91 percent of meals specifically peddled to children fail to meet a minimum nutritional standard.
“We held this meeting to send a message to our local restaurant industry that the Montgomery County Council takes seriously its charge to promote a culture of wellness and advance public health. While we are not considering legislation at this time, we will return to this topic again in the future in the hope that local fast food restaurants will change their practices and offer more healthful choices for children's meals.”
Of the top 50 chains, nine (18 percent) did not have dedicated children's menu items or meals. Of the 41 chains with children's items, 34 (83 percent) offered children's meal combinations and provided adequate information for nutrition analyses. The report assesses the nutritional quality of all possible children's meal combinations against a set of standards developed by a panel of nutrition and health experts, and against the National Restaurant Association's (NRA) Kids LiveWell standards.
Of the 3,494 meal combinations, 97 percent do not meet the expert nutrition standards for children's meals and 91 percent do not meet the NRA's Kids LiveWell standards. Nineteen of the restaurant chains offering children's meals (56 percent) do not have even one meal that meets the expert nutrition standards and nine chains (26 percent) do not have one meal that meets the Kids LiveWell standards.