News: CJ Exclusives

Childhood Obesity Mandates Largely Become Suggestions

‘Nanny state’ charges resonated in short session

After much criticism, the state’s Task Force on Childhood Obesity got three fat-fighting laws passed in the General Assembly’s short session.

The most controversial bill initially was intended to ban whole fat milk, fruit juice, and sugar sweetened beverages in day care centers and preschools. Later, a provision banning bottles was tacked on.

As the bill made its way through committee, it faced opposition from conservative members of the House and Senate, along with grass-roots groups including Americans for Prosperity. That opposition stripped some of its compulsory language so that the final version took on a more suggestive tone.

At first the bill mandated:

• “A prohibition against serving any sugar sweetened beverage to children of any age.”

• “A requirement to serve reduced fat milk to children older than two years of age.” (The task force recommended skim or 1 percent.)

• “A prohibition against serving more than four to six ounces of juice per day to children over one year of age.”

Later, the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, added a provision that would outlaw serving juice in a bottle. She said drinking juice from a bottle causes cavities.

In a House Commerce, Small Business, and Entrepreneurship Committee hearing June 23, Rep. John May, D-Franklin, complained the bottle ban was unreasonable.

“I’m assuming there are babies and small children who are not trained yet to drink from cups or sippy cups,” May said.

Weiss responded by saying that babies shouldn’t be drinking juice anyway. And if they were old enough to drink juice, they were old enough to drink from a cup.

Rep. Curtis Blackwood, R-Union, argued with Weiss about her assertion that juice was nothing more than empty calories.

“Orange juice and tomato juice are not empty calories,” he said.

“What’s wrong with whole milk?” asked Rep. James Boles Jr., R-Moore. “We all grew up drinking it,” he said. “It didn’t kill us.”

Further down the line, a prohibition against chocolate (or any flavored) milk was added to the bill. This led to a passionate House floor debate June 24.

During that debate, The News & Observer reported, House Minority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, warned that the legislation would lead to a nanny state. The bill’s lone Republican sponsor, Rep. Larry Brown, R-Forsyth, countered, “I think what we’re doing today is killing our children and grandchildren, and if we don’t adopt some of these regulations from the task force, we’re making a serious mistake.”

Americans For Prosperity sent out an e-mail blast June 28 and made phone calls to the districts of House Democrats who voted for the bill, calling them the “milk police.”

The version of the bill that finally was ratified left the Department of Health and Human Services with the responsibility of deciding whether “limiting or prohibiting” each beverage was the proper policy.

Moreover, what had been mandates in the early versions of the bill became suggestions instead. The final version exempted “from the rules for parents of children who have medical needs, special diets, or food allergies.” It also included provision allowing “a parent or guardian to provide to a child food and beverages that may not meet the nutrition standards.”

Two other task force recommendations became law this session. One requests additional federal funds to expand the state’s food stamp program. The other requires annual fitness testing in schools, from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Legislative proposals that did not become law include:

• Measuring children’s body mass index
• Spending $5 million to make reduced-priced school lunches free
• Spending $3 million to help build “walkable” sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and parks in 15 “active living” communities.”

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.