North Carolina’s Legislature Targets Children’s Waistlines, Sparks Parental Resistance

North Carolina’s Legislature Targets Children’s Waistlines, Sparks Parental Resistance
August 17, 2011

Sara Burrows

Sara Burrows (sburrows@carolinajournal.com) is associate editor and capital reporter for Carolina... (read full bio)

In North Carolina, a host of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who agree government should maintain an active role in controlling children’ diets, have introduced four bills this legislative session directed at North Carolinians’ waistlines. Parental rights advocates counter that what a child eats and what a child weighs are the business of parents, not the government.

One bill introduced would reestablish the Legislative Task Force on Childhood Obesity, which last year recommended banning whole-fat milk and juice in public and private day care centers. Another bill, ratified June 9, created a Diabetes Task Force charged with recommending strategies for reducing diabetes and associated health care costs.

The Sodium Resolution, adopted in May, states the House of Representatives “supports measures aimed at decreasing heart disease and stroke in North Carolina and encourages the State's citizens to reduce sodium in their diets.” And House Bill 503, the Nutrition Standards/All Foods Sold at School Act, aims to push children into the “healthier” national school lunch and school breakfast programs by reducing access to “competitive” foods.

Parents’ Rights at Issue

Lawmakers said the best place to start fighting the so-called obesity epidemic was with children, by feeding, educating, weighing, and measuring them in schools. But Michael Ramey, director of communications and research at ParentalRights.org, says no one is better equipped to make decisions about a child’s diet than the child’s parents.

“Parents know and love that child more than all the bureaucrats and lawmakers put together,” Ramey said. “And parents also know the specific dietary needs of their children. Not all children are alike, and not all parents agree on what types of food are the healthiest.”

Ramey said the legislature should not restrict competing nutrition programs.

“Parents should be allowed to choose whether they’ll participate in official school and day care nutrition programs,” Raney said, “That would allow the schools to take an active role in promoting health for families who ask for their assistance, while leaving the ultimate decision over what a child eats with the parents, where it belongs.”

Constrains “Competitive Foods”

H.B. 503 imposes new nutrition standards on “competitive foods” sold in schools. Competitive food is defined as any food or beverage sold to students on school grounds that is not part of the federal school breakfast or school lunch program. That includes food sold in vending machines, school stores, snack bars, fundraisers (including bake sales), and other informal food sales to students on the school campus.

The bill would subject competitive foods to nutrition standards established by either the federal government’s Institute of Medicine or the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a nonprofit founded by the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation. The guidelines set out by both groups focus on promoting the consumption of fruits, vegetables, grains, and low-fat and fat-free dairy, along with reducing the consumption of fat, sugar, sodium, and calories.

The Institute for Medicine states that “federally reimbursable school nutrition programs should be the main source of nutrition in schools,” and that “opportunities for competitive foods should be limited.”

Proper Role of Government?

When asked whether tackling childhood obesity was the proper role of government, bill sponsor Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, said it is.

“The children of today will be our future soldiers, law enforcement, and other public safety officers, and our future Medicaid and Medicare patients,” Insko said.

Republican cosponsor Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir, agreed.

“As long as government’s going to subsidize health care, yes, it is,” LaRoque said.

LaRoque said studies show limiting access to low-nutrient competitive foods lowers a student’s body mass index.

“We’re also going to track them,” LaRoque said. “We’re going to take their BMI and track them per grade as they grow up, so we’ll be able to tell if what we’re doing has any effect.”

Parents ‘Not Doing Their Job’

Sen. Larry Brown, R-Forsyth, sponsor of the bill to renew the task force on childhood obesity, explained why he thinks the government should dictate school and day care menus.

“Evidently, parents just don’t have the time or the desire to give children nutritious meals at home. Therefore, when they do get fed, we want them to be fed nutritious meals, and also to make them more active,” Brown said.

He went on to say parents are “not doing their job” and that by feeding children fast food, “they’re killing their children and not even realizing it.”

Village vs. ‘Unfit’ Parents

Brown also endorsed last year’s proposal to ban whole milk and juice in private day care facilities.

“I don’t like to see the government step in and do anything to take away citizens’ rights to make their own mistakes—I don’t like that aspect of it,” Brown said at the time. “But at certain times if the parent is not going to do it, the government might ought [sic] to give a little oversight. If we’re going to pay the expense of it, we should have some role in dictating the nutritional value.”

Ramey maintains that the legislature is overstepping its authority in the name of saving money on government-subsidized health care. He admits “unfit” parents do exist, but he says they are the minority.

“To say the state should take charge in every case because some few parents will neglect their children is repugnant to American tradition,” Ramey said.

Sara Burrows

Sara Burrows (sburrows@carolinajournal.com) is associate editor and capital reporter for Carolina... (read full bio)