Thursday, March 25, 2010

Yes we can! National menu labeling in health reform bill

What an exciting week this has been for America!  On Tuesday, March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the Affordable Health Care for America Act into law. Nestled in the hefty legislation, is Section 2572, which mandates chain restaurants with 20 or more locations display calories on menus, menu boards, and drive-through displays, as well as on vending machines. Temporary specials appearing on the menu for less than 60 days, condiments and test market foods are exempt. The Food and Drug Administration will establish the specific regulations and determine exactly when these changes go into effect. 

Menus will display calories in the context of a total daily diet (which is an average of 2,000 calories per day), so people will be able to make better assessments of their choices.  Many people do not understand what 500 calories means in their daily diet, so including some context with this calorie statement will be extremely helpful.  A study by the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that people choose lower calorie food when their menus contained caloric information and a statement that explained the average person consumes 2,000 calories daily.

Unfortunately, the legislation only requires restaurants to post caloric content, when other information such as sodium and fat content, are critical information for preventing chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.  However, the bill states that restaurants will have to provide additional nutrition information to consumers upon request. 

Additionally, the bill will preempt any local menu-labeling legislation, making the national bill the standard for the entire country.  While this is generally a win, it is concerning to DVMC because many of the laws already in place are more stringent and public health conscious.  The DVMC team will be investigating what the national law means for all of us in the nation’s capital, who want more specific nutrition information displayed on menus and menu boards.  Stay tuned for updates!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

MWPHA hosts a panel on food policy

On March 3, 2010,  the Metropolitan Washington Public Health Association (MWPHA) hosted a panel discussion to raise awareness about nutrition and access to healthy and safe food. Tambra Stevenson, Chair of the MWPHA’s Food & the Environment Committee, convened the panel which included Carl Rollins of Common Good City Farm, and DC Voices for MEAL Choices own advocate Aileen Orlino.

The panel explored a wide range of issues, including the many aspects of our broken factory farm-focused food and the issues around the high supply of low-cost food that is lacking in nutritional value and high in sodium and sugar.  Carl Rollins described the conditions in which chickens and cattle are raised, the overuse of antibiotics and hormones and their impact on public health, and the effects of all of these elements on the environment.  Rollins supported the use of school garden programs and eventually large-scale urban agriculture as part of a multi-pronged solution to these health and food problems.   Aileen urged a paradigm shift in our culture where people spend a little bit greater proportion of their incomes on food (of higher quality) and become less accustomed to cheap food (and its allure, e.g. convenience).  There are ways to check our addiction to sugar and unhealthy foods. Once we have information, such as nutrition contents of food items on restaurant menus, we can start small and begin to make incremental changes in our diets.