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Restaurants dismayed as healthy kids’ meals bill close to passage in Baltimore

Sugar cubes represent the sugar content of a soda. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Sugar cubes represent the sugar content of a soda. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

The Baltimore City Council appears poised to pass a bill requiring restaurants to make children’s meals healthier, drawing ire from the industry.

After passing a committee with a 7-0 vote of approval, the bill will be up for a vote before the entire city council Monday evening.

While advocates believe the bill will help improve kids’ health outcomes in the city, restaurants worry that the bill represents a growing interference by the city in their operations.

“It is puzzling and disappointing that the Baltimore City Council is becoming more involved with policies affecting the minutia of restaurant operations,” wrote Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of the Maryland Restaurant Association, in an email. “This type of unwarranted focus on the restaurant industry exacerbates the operational challenges already facing City restaurants.”

At the same committee meeting where the kids’ meal bill passed, the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee passed a ban on Styrofoam takeout containers. Another bill before the council would affect restaurant inspections.

The health kids’ meals bill requires restaurants to make water, milk or 100 percent fruit juice the default option for prepackaged kids’ meals. Families would still have the option of requesting a sugary drink, like a soda, under the legislation.

Several large chains, such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Applebees, have already made a similar change without legislation.

For advocates of the bill, it will help improve health outcomes in a city where a third of school-aged children are obese and a quarter of children drink at least one soda a day. Families in the Baltimore area eat out an average of 2.6 times a week, said Shawn McIntosh, executive director of Sugar Free Kids Maryland, a leading supporter of the bill.

“We are not trying to tell people what to choose,” she said. “We are just trying to provide people an option for something healthy.”

The bill has attracted the support of the Baltimore City Health Department, which sees it as a way to improve health outcomes for the city’s children.

“Taking out empty calories from sugary drinks is a powerful lifestyle change we can make to help our children to get and stay healthy,” said Dr. Leana Wen, the city’s health commissioner, in a statement. “This bill would help families make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

Restaurants see a threat to their bottom line.

Potential burdens include increased wait times and higher prices as restaurants have to accommodate more questions from patrons and include costlier bottled beverages, Thompson wrote in testimony to the council before a hearing last month.

It would also be difficult to know how many restaurants could be affected by the legislation, because not all restaurants advertise a kids menu, or even hand one out until asked.

But at McDonald’s, Walt Disney World and restaurants in the cities of Stockton, California, and Lafayette, Colorado, which have passed similar legislation, offering healthier beverages has not put a dent in sales, McIntosh said.

“When McDonald’s made this change, in the first 10 months they sold 21 million beverages,” she said. “(Restaurants adopting the changes) saw an uptick in the healthy beverages, but they didn’t see people decide not to eat or not to drink.”


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