As a pastor in East Baltimore, I see my community suffering from improper nutrition on a regular basis. Poor eating and drinking habits contribute to chronic diseases as they affect children, adults and grandparents from generation to generation.
Choosing healthy beverages is a huge problem for the children of Baltimore. One in every four kids in this city drinks at least one soda every day. The American Heart Association recommends that children over the age of 2 drink only one 8-ounce sugar-sweetened drink a week.
The disparity is resulting in children developing chronic diseases that you normally see in adults. One in three Baltimore children is unable to maintain a healthy weight, and research shows sugary drinks are a key contributor. Chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay are increasingly common among our city’s kids.
This is an especially alarming problem in our low-income neighborhoods, where families consume two and a half more sugary drinks than higher-income families. In communities like mine, we are fighting a lack of awareness about healthy eating and drinking and big beverage industries that are bombarding families with cheap, innutritious, sugar-laden drinks as go-to options for their kids.
Our city has a chance to help its children learn how to make nutritious choices. On Monday, the Baltimore City Council is expected to vote on the Healthy Kids’ Meal Bill that would make water, milk, 100 percent fruit juice and other healthy drinks the default beverage choices on kids’ menus at city restaurants. The legislation is backed by Sugar Free Kids Maryland, the Baltimore City Health Department and the American Heart Association — groups that have set local and national standards for creating a culture of health.
Why focus on restaurants? It’s a logical place to start. Whether Baltimore families are dining at fast food restaurants or fancy establishments, we are eating out more than ever. Promoting healthy choices at restaurants can help encourage healthy choices at corner stores, grocery stores and at home.
Several adults in my congregation are suffering from the poor food and drink options they grew up with in our community. Type 2 diabetes has caused one woman to lose both her legs to amputation and another to slowly see her vision diminish. Many members have fought weight issues their entire lives. These problems stem from habits developed as children. Now we are learning lessons from these congregants that will help our younger members avoid poor health and live longer, healthier lives.
The City Council has an opportunity to play a meaningful role in supporting parents’ desire to ensure a healthy start to life for Baltimore’s children. This legislation is good policy, and it’s the right idea for Baltimore. By making healthy options easier for families to choose in restaurants, kids will be more likely to choose better drinks like milk and water. When we create a community that supports these kinds of choices, we will be able to see dramatic drops in chronic disease. It will not only help our children become healthier now, but also help them develop habits that reinforce a lifetime of good health.
My congregation has seized its own opportunity to take the lead in promoting healthy food and drinks. We run a soup kitchen every Saturday and invite anyone in the neighborhood who could use a meal. Recently, we’ve substituted healthier items in the lunches we serve. We also have made changes to serve healthier drinks and more fresh fruits and vegetables, instead of starches and processed foods. As a community institution, our church wants to emphasize the importance of eating and drinking nutritionally. Since we have increased healthier options, even more families have started coming to our soup kitchens.
Baltimore must seize this opportunity to build a healthy city, healthy habits and healthy children. When we support our children’s health, we support the health of everyone in the city, whether they live in low- or high-income communities. Passing the Baltimore City Healthy Kids’ Meal Bill would make a tangible difference for all our children’s future. It’s the right thing to do.
Kevin A. Slayton Sr. is pastor of the New Waverly United Methodist Church. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.