County Council approves bill requiring healthy meal options for children

County Council approves bill requiring healthy meal options for children

The Montgomery County Council approved legislation Tuesday that aims to provide healthier options for children when families dine out at restaurants and similar establishments.

In the 8-1 vote in favor of the bill, County Council Member Andrew Friedson was the only one opposed. He unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to exempt smaller restaurants.

Friedson’s amendment called for exempting any restaurant with fewer than 20 locations in the United States as a measure of relief. The amendment failed 7-2, with only Friedson and Council Member Sidney Katz voting yes.

The overall bill was spearheaded by County Council Member Craig Rice. He said during Tuesday’s meeting that although some criticized it as a “feel good” measure, it is meant to address historical inequities by providing more healthy options for minority children in the community.

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re changing the paradigm that currently exists, where a huge amount of our kids of color are obese,” Rice said. “And we know what that leads to. That leads to hypertension. That leads to diabetes. That leads to heart disease. It leads to all the precursors that will make us more susceptible to things, like the global pandemic that we just experienced.”

Barry Hudson, a spokesman for County Executive Marc Elrich, did not immediately respond to an inquiry about whether Elrich would sign the bill.

The council’s Health and Human Services committee approved some amendments at a prior meeting, leading to the final provisions. The final bill requires that restaurants and other food-service businesses offer at least one meal that has less than:

  • 600 calories
  • 700 milligrams of sodium
  • 35% of calories from total sugars 
  • 35% of calories from fat
  • 10% of calories from saturated fat
  • 0.5 grams of trans fat

It also must include either water with no added sugar; 8 ounces or less of nonfat or 1% milk or a daily equivalent; or 6 ounces or less of fruit or vegetable juice, or a fruit-vegetable juice combo.

An amendment from the Health and Human Services committee added the following: “sparkling water; and 8 ounces or less, with no added sweeteners, of 100% juice (or a mixture of 100% juice with water or sparkling water),” according to a council staff report. 

The bill also requires:

  • A quarter-cup or more of unfried fruit or unfried vegetables, excluding juice, condiments, or spreads. That was amended from the previous requirement of a half-cup. Council Member Will Jawando tried to amend it back to the half-cup, but only he, Council Member Tom Hucker and Council Member Nancy Navarro supported that in a 6-3 vote.
  • A whole grain product consisting of, by weight, 51% or more of whole grain ingredients
  • A lean protein, which could be: 1 ounce or more of meat, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans, or peas; an egg; half a cup of nonfat or 1% milk or low-fat yogurt, or 1 ounce of reduced fat cheese; or a plant-based alternative with calcium or vitamin D

The drink requirement of the bill would become effective 12 months after it becomes law. The meal component of the bill would be effective 18 months later.

If restaurants or similar businesses don’t comply, it would be a Class A violation. According to county code, that means the business would face a $500 initial fine, then a $750 fine for repeat offenses.

Rice said he knows some people will still pick the unhealthier options for their children, but it’s important to at least give families a more nutritious choice when they go out to eat.

“We cannot say that we are serious about promoting the health of our children, our communities of color, our communities of lower socioeconomic status, and at the same time saying that we can continue to allow for us to not promote better, healthier options for our communities,” Rice said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at [email protected]