During the last legislative session, I introduced a bill to give Maryland's children a better tomorrow. It required restaurants to offer only water or milk with children's meals (included in the meal price) instead of high-sugar and caloric beverages. Other beverages would still have been available at an extra cost.

Unfortunately, after the bill went to the state Economic Matters Committee, it was killed due to opposition. A similar bill that also allowed for fruit juice to be served was killed earlier this month. I think these were huge mistakes.


Why? Because sugary drinks continue to contribute to an epidemic that is silently eating away at our children: childhood obesity. According to national statistics:

•The average American drinks nearly 50 gallons of sugary drinks per year;

•Children who drink one or more sugary beverages per day have a 60 percent greater chance of being overweight or obese and are 30 percent more likely to develop type II diabetes than a child who does not consume these beverages;

•And corporate marketing continues to disproportionately target kids with unhealthy food and sugary drink advertisements across the nation, greatly contributing to the growing obesity epidemic.

What this means is that we have a generation of children in Maryland who experts say is the first likely to live sicker, shorter lives than their parents as a result of obesity. In fact, according to federal numbers, one in three children nationwide suffers from obesity, and the issue doesn't look to be going away any time soon.

Statistics also show obesity has both long- and short-term effects on our children. Obese youth are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem. And obese children are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.

While these statistics are alarming, they aren't insurmountable. With a new legislative session upon us, it is time to re-address this issue for the sake of our children.

Previous criticism of the bill focused on the ability of government to legislate everyday actions. More specifically, some of my colleagues felt that legislation should not direct parental decisions.

It goes without saying that parents play a role in our children's health. Parents serve as role models for our children, leading by example and providing options for them. But we cannot lose sight of the entire picture of the epidemic in front of us.

Childhood obesity isn't solely caused by parental decisions or sugary drinks. According to the Leadership for Healthy Communities, a partner with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, lack of physical activity, food deserts (communities that lack of access to fresh, healthy foods), poor school nutrition and limited education are also major contributors.

Prevention as a whole is important. Healthy lifestyle habits, including healthy eating and physical activity, can lower the risk of becoming obese and developing related diseases.

For these reasons, I propose a multi-prong "war-like" strategy against childhood obesity. Schools serve as ground zero, communities and neighborhoods are our next battleground, and parental involvement and community engagement are our secret weapons.

More specifically, we should: continue to support the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, which has contributed to healthier menu options for our kids and universal nutrition standards in schools since 2012; investigate additional ways to provide safe places for our kids to play; and build multi-level partnerships to bring all stakeholders to the table and promote a statewide education campaign and community-wide strategy to address food deserts.

Our parents and families can do better, if they know better.


Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk, a Democrat, represents Maryland House District 21 and sits on the Health and Government Operations Committee. Her email address is Joseline.Pena.Melnyk@house.state.md.us.