Ball: Council bill was measure to provide healthier options [Commentary]

Howard County Times

Freedom, responsibility and choice are all potent symbols of the American psyche.

Recently, all three words have been invoked in the debate over whether the county government should add healthier food and drink choices to its vending machines and youth programming.

The legislation in question is Council Bill 17-2015. I sponsored this bill and worked with my colleagues on compromises that earned it a 4-1 majority vote.County Executive Allan Kittleman, however, vetoed this consensus legislation using arguments that struggle to stand up to scrutiny, including the idea that it would remove "personal responsibility"and choice.

This bill would do no such thing.

In order to fully understand the legislation, it is important to remember how it came about.

Compelled by the overwhelming evidence that poor nutrition is underlying the alarming increases in chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and others—diseases that disproportionately afflict minorities—our previous County Executive Ken Ulman recognized correctly that government has a responsibility to improve the nutritional value of food and drink offered on its property. Accordingly, he took bold action. We continued a community conversation and heard concerns.

When the current County Executive proclaimed prior to taking office that repealing this edict would be his first order of business upon being sworn in, there were many, including me, who hoped he would also show some leadership and take real action. Unfortunately, that didn't happen.

Therefore, the County Council took on the responsibility to find the middle ground. Following two years of community discussion about the need for healthier food and drink choices to be more widely available and two months of collaborative deliberation on this legislation, we achieved consensus.

And what is included in that consensus?

First, freedom of choice. This bill ensures individuals are free to choose healthy food and drinks on county property, and it also ensures that they are free to choose unhealthy food and drinks on county property.

If you want a Coke, you can have a Coke. If you want water, you can have water.

This bill is also grounded in evidence. It recognizes that in order to help stem the alarming growth of chronic diseases, education is only half the solution. The other half is improving the environment to better support health—for instance, by expanding healthy food and drink choices on public property.

More importantly, however, this bill follows reports that Howard County residents are increasingly looking for healthy food and drink choices, and ensures their searches won't end in frustration while on county property.

Quite simply, this is a reasonable, incremental and evidence-based measure to make healthier options more plentiful on county property and to ensure the food and drinks we serve youth in our programs mirror the choices they have at home or at school.

Despite assertions to the contrary, this bill is, by definition, responsible.

Because we, as elected officials, have a responsibility to our employees to provide a meaningful number of healthy food and drink options in the workplace to support their own individual health goals.

We have a responsibility to our fellow parents to ensure that their kids, when under our care, are given the same healthy choices they receive at home or at school.

We have a responsibility to taxpayers to ensure that their tax dollars are spent as wisely and prudently as possible, which includes doing what we can to keep health care benefits costs low.

And of course, we also have a responsibility to respond to concerns raised by our constituents. Which is exactly what we've done with CB17. In nine years on the council, I have never received as many letters of support for a piece of legislation as this one—more than 1,000 people and 30 organizations contacted us to support it.

To ignore the alarming health trends, overwhelming feedback from the community and the sound science about the causes and solutions to addressing chronic diseases would be the height of irresponsibility.

In considering this bill and the feedback we have heard about it, I've asked myself a simple question. To whom do we have a greater responsibility: the private business selling goods as the government's agent on public property, or the government employee or county resident who is trying to make better choices and lead a healthier life?

The responsible choice is obvious, and by a 4-1 margin, the County Council made its choice clear.

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