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Md. schools must offer healthy lunch options

Are schools feeding kids prison food?

Our kids are being poisoned every day in their schools. It's not from lead paint or pipes, but by the food and drinks being served to them — the cheapest to make and deadliest to eat and, in some instances, the same food fed to the inmate populations in our state prisons.

These foods and beverages are loaded with sugar, carbohydrates and harmful preservatives that allow them to be frozen or sit on shelves for months or even years at a time before being served to children. Any kid not eating a packed lunch in school is likely dining on recipes ripe for diabetes, heart disease and obesity — some of the biggest health issues facing our country today.

The Institute of Medicine attributes 20 percent of the nation's weight increase between 1977 and 2007 to the consumption of sugary drinks, including soda, sugar-added juices, flavored waters and teas, sports drinks and energy drinks. Sugary drinks contribute more calories and added sugars to our diets than any other food or beverage, and daily consumption is strongly linked to higher childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes rates.

Such conditions are especially prevalent in communities with little access to healthy alternatives. Some children of Baltimore City have more access to sodas than they do clean water during the school day. When they leave school, they return to communities that have more liquor stores than markets that sell healthy drinks. Like most urban communities across the country, Baltimore is full of what is known as "dead food zones" and "food deserts." Many families report that they have to take upward of two buses just to get to a local market with healthier options.

This issue of obesity comes at a huge cost to our economy. Obese adults spend 42 percent more on health care than those that lead a healthier lifestyle. Sedentary adults pay $1,500 more a year in health care costs than those who are active. Studies show that an investment of $10 per person on physical activity and nutrition education would lead to a savings of $10 billion in health care costs. That would lead to a return on our investment of $5.60 for every $1 spent, and Medicare would save more than $5 billion annually.

As a former All-American linebacker at Penn State and four-year NFL veteran, I know the value of a healthy diet. Not eating and drinking the right foods can leave children sluggish, lazy and uninspired. As an advocate for Sugar Free Kids Maryland, I know how important it is to give our kids quality options.

A statewide coalition established in 2014, SFK advocates for more access to healthier food and drink for Maryland youth through education and policy changes. In May, Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby introduced a resolution to hold an informational hearing regarding Sugar Free Kids and the effects of sugary drinks on our body and the community.

In the coming months, Councilman Mosby will introduce a bill to the Baltimore City Council that would require all advertisements for sugary beverages to contain a warning label, stating the health risks associated with consuming the product. The legislation would also authorize City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen to impose penalties for non-compliance.

Passing such legislation would be a tremendous victory, but only a small step in the right direction for a system where big businesses are profiting off the poisoning of our children in their schools.

Much more must be done. School meals need to, once again, be cooked in the schools. We need to make healthy options more readily accessible. We need to change the culture in schools so that we can get to a point where booster clubs don't only sell sodas at sporting events. We desperately need affordable, clean, safe drinking water in communities that have no other choices. We need truthful marketing that explains the dangers of the products that we might consume.

We can do all of this and more in Baltimore. We just need to do it together.

Aaron Maybin should is the founder of Project Mayhem and an advocate for Sugar Free Kids Maryland; his email is Aaronmm762003@yahoo.com.

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