In Our View: Taking a Bite out of Obesity

Effort creating healthful options at eateries great, but federal spending hard to justify

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The question is not about whether we all should be eating more healthfully. No, the question is about what lengths the government should go in support of such healthful eating.

A program supported by Clark County Public Health is working with local, independent restaurants to provide more healthful menu options for customers. With assistance from staff at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center and the culinary program at Clark College, the Healthy Neighborhood Restaurants program is working to make Clark County just a little more robust. For restaurants to take part in the effort, according to a Columbian story by reporter Marissa Harshman, menus must include a healthful option in each category offered (appetizers, entrees, etc.); smaller or half-portions; more healthful side substitutions (vegetables instead of french fries) at no additional charge; and healthful options on children's menus.

The program is free to restaurants, and Melissa Martin of the health department's chronic disease prevention program said, "We really see this as a win-win for both customers and the businesses."

So far, so good. There is a trough full of evidence suggesting that Americans need to start eating better.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and obesity raises the risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. In addition, the rate of obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents over the past 30 years, serving as a harbinger for a lifetime of medical problems.

Yes, a partnership between local government and local restaurants to improve local health is welcome. But here is where the program goes sideways: It is supported by a $292,500 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Sodium Reduction in Communities Program. According to Martin, the sodium reduction grant will allow the county to enhance the Healthy Neighborhood Restaurants program by hiring a chef to consult with restaurant owners. The chef consultant can provide group and individual culinary instruction on how to enhance flavor without adding sodium (salt) to dishes.

That's all well and good. According to the CDC, about 90 percent of Americans eat more sodium than is recommended for a healthful diet. But the notion of the federal government providing nearly $300,000 for a local program that targets sodium reduction seems a little excessive. OK, a lot excessive. It is the governmental equivalent of pouring an entire tablespoon of salt on your french fries, and it very quickly will fall into the category of "outlandish federal spending" for those who are wont to criticize such things. With a federal budget battle looming, items such as this make it difficult to argue that there is nowhere to cut the fat, so to speak.

The CDC's annual budget is more than $6 billion. Of that, about $2.4 billion goes toward protecting Americans from infectious diseases; $1.3 billion goes toward preventing disease, disability, and death; and another $1.3 billion goes toward protecting Americans from natural or bioterrorism threats. The agency, under the Department of Health and Human Services, does good and important work, and the presence of a central organization is essential in preventing the spread of disease.

Clark County Public Health also does good and important work, and the fact that a sodium-reduction grant was available from a federal agency is not the fault of the local agency. But sometimes, the federal government has no business seasoning the pot for a local program.