ANNAPOLIS – A Montgomery County Delegate has her sights set on reducing childhood obesity, but she won’t be including a higher premium charge for overweight people in the package of legislation she plans to introduce into the next General Assembly session.
Delegate Joan Stern, D-Montgomery, said the premium idea surfaced a few months ago from a brainstorming session, but she has more concrete plans now.
“We were never pursing charging higher premiums, it was just an idea that was floating around,” said Stern.
In July, The Gazette reported that Stern changed her mind several times on what the legislation would include, and ultimately she said it would focus solely on childhood obesity after criticism over the higher premiums.
Stern is in the process of finishing a package of five bills on the juvenile obesity issue and hopes to pre-file them within the next few weeks.
Her bills would establish an advisory council, mandate physical activity and better nutrition in schools, expand insurance coverage for counseling and treatment and require schools to complete health surveys.
A conference in Arizona two years ago alerted Stern to the importance of the issue.
“The statistics we heard were shocking . . . we had no idea how serious the problem was,” said Stern. She was also surprised to learn there that her own state, unlike others, did not have a plan to prevent childhood obesity.
Maryland ranks eighth nationally in the rate of diabetes, and obesity is a major factor in the cause of that disease. Meanwhile, Type II diabetes in children is growing nationwide, the American Diabetes Association reports.
“The critical issue is that obesity is a burgeoning epidemic . . . If we don’t get a hold on obesity, it’s going to overflow our health system,” said Eric Gally, contract lobbyist for the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, both collaborators on the legislation.
Probably the most controversial of her proposals would require the State Board of Education to raise nutritional standards for food served a la carte and for breakfast and lunch at the state’s public schools.
The State Board of Education has not been cooperative in attempts to mandate improvements in nutrition, Gally said.
“The schools are legally responsible for our children and in the area of nutrition, they have failed miserably,” he said.
The State Board of Education said it is involved in the Maryland Action for Healthy Kids program, which is designed to prevent and decrease the number of overweight and obese kids, but it serves only children who need it, not every child in school.
“The Department of Education has been deeply concerned about obesity and about the increase in obesity among kids,” said Bill Reinhard, department spokesman.
Schools also would be required to mandate one hour of physical activity each day for school children in grades K through 12 under Stern’s proposals.
“The physical fitness requirement does not have to be performed on school grounds . . . It would be similar to community service hours,” said Stern. She said that if students walk to school, play soccer or dance, they could count those hours toward the physical fitness requirement.
Another bill would create an advisory council on obesity in youth. Members would include experts on nutrition and physical fitness, physicians, educators, as well as representatives from restaurant associations, food industry manufacturers and grocery stores.
The final two bills would expand the Child Wellness Insurance Program to ensure counseling and treatment for obesity and require schools to use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s youth risk survey to compile data on youth health.
Stern said because the state does not have statistical data, it is not eligible for many grants through the CDC.
“We need parents, teachers, community organizers, corporations and, yes, children to help launch this fight against obesity and inactivity,” said Stern. “If we want to set new standards in Maryland . . . we need to have everyone on board.”