In Prince George’s County, Maryland, healthy food isn’t always easy to find. Unfortunately, for many parents and kids, picking up a burger, fries and sugary drink is often far cheaper and more convenient than finding a healthier alternative.
It is for this reason that the Prince George’s County Council recently introduced the Healthy Kids’ Meals bill (CB-071-2020), legislation that would curb the number of sugary drinks and unhealthy foods sold with restaurant kids’ meals (Prince George’s County Legislative Branch, 2020). The coalition of advocates supporting the bill, including the American Heart Association, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Sugar Free Kids Maryland and the Prince George’s Food Equity Council, believes it is an important step to right the wrongs of a food system plagued by inequality and structural racism.
As one of the wealthiest predominantly Black counties in the country, Prince George’s County offers a unique perspective on the role of racial injustices in the food system. While higher-income, predominantly white communities are often privileged with place-based health benefits, Prince George’s County has been subjected to a disproportionately high density of unhealthy food establishments, which can contribute to poor health outcomes and rising obesity rates among adults and children (The Maryland-National Capital Park Planning Commission, 2015).
The impacts of COVID-19 may continue to worsen existing inequities as economic challenges increase rates of food insecurity, particularly among low-income families of color already facing diet-related chronic health conditions. The pandemic has also put working parents on double duty, as they struggle to keep up with employment demands, while simultaneously taking care of kids during school closures. For parents who are frontline workers, as well as parents working from home, limited time has increased reliance on restaurant and takeout food, which is often high in calories, saturated fat and sugar (JAMA, 2013).
The connection between unhealthy food consumption and long-term health conditions and chronic disease is clear. Children who consume healthy diets live healthier lives as adults and have a decreased risk of diet-related chronic disease (CDC). Now, it is more important than ever to help parents choose healthy meals for their children. As one county resident said in support of the proposed legislation, “As a busy mom of two, it can be hard to find healthy options in our county when I’m not cooking at home. The Prince George’s County Healthy Kids’ Meal bill will help me find nutritious options for my kids wherever our day takes us!”
While the county faces larger systemic issues of health inequities and food injustice, this legislation is an important step towards a more equitable food environment. The Healthy Kids’ Meals bill comes at a time when there is a growing recognition of how predatory marketing of unhealthy foods and a historic disinvestment in communities of color have negatively influenced food access for our youth. As one of the first pieces of legislation in the country to ensure both healthy default beverages and nutrition standards, the Prince George’s County Healthy Kids’ Meal bill would set a precedent for advocates across the country interested in supporting the health of families and future generations.