Graduate students campaign for restaurant nutrition facts

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Ten graduate public health students interested in impacting the eating habits of D.C. residents formed D.C. Voices for MEAL Choices, a committee campaigning to post nutritional labels on menus in District restaurants.

“(Consumers) have a right to know the (nutritional) information,” said committee member Leah Kasowitz.

The committee’s efforts center on garnering support for the D.C. MEAL Act, a measure that would require restaurants in D.C. with more than ten locations nationwide to provide nutritional information for the food they serve.

If the measure were passed, restaurants would be required to post the number of calories, grams of trans fat, grams of saturated fat, grams of carbohydrates and grams of sodium for each item on the menu. The regulations would also specify that restaurants would be required to make this information visible when patrons are deciding which items to purchase.

“There’s a lot of support for this (menu labeling) in D.C. It just hasn’t happened,” said committee member Elizabeth Spencer.

The students in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences are all enrolled in a course entitled Community Organization, Development and Advocacy. They began working with the Metro Washington Public Health Association in September and launched a D.C. Voices Web site two months later.

The committee plans to stage an eat-in Nov. 28 during which committee members will display foods from local restaurants and quiz passerby on the calorie and fat content of the items.

“It’s not like it would be a big out of pocket cost (for the restaurants),” said Christina Plourde, another D.C. Voices member.

More than half of chain restaurants operating in D.C. already provide such information on their Web sites.

Though this committee is a new part of the campaign for menu labeling, the issue has been under discussion since the passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990.

“What sharpened the issue is (that) the obesity epidemic has continued to worsen,” said GW research professor Michael Taylor. In the early 1990s, Taylor was the deputy commissioner for policy of the Food and Drug Administration.

He added that while it is difficult to overcome the restaurant industry’s opposition to menu labeling on the national level, the issue is one in which “local leadership can make a real difference.”

Statistics from the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion show that more than half of the D.C. population is overweight or obese. In 2004, D.C. residents spent the highest proportion of their food money on eating out, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Health officials in other cities are calling for similar menu labeling requirements. New York health officials have proposed a measure that would require any food service establishment that is one of at least 15 establishments operating nationally to post the calorie values of menu items.

Because menu-labeling requirements have yet to be implemented in the long term, there are no conclusive evaluations that show the effectiveness of such measures on public health.

As Spencer said, “You can’t make people eat broccoli.”

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