A new Metro Louisville law requiring healthy options for kids’ meals is bringing changes to local restaurants. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

A new law requiring healthier food options for children at restaurants in Metro Louisville won’t go into effect until October, but some people in the culinary industry are predicting it will lead to higher check prices for consumers or the end of kids’ meals all together at some establishments.

Supporters of the law say these concerns are unwarranted because the majority of area restaurants are already in compliance with the new measure. They believe the change is necessary because Kentucky has one of the worse obesity rates the country.

The ordinance, sponsored by Rick Blackwell and Vicki Aubrey Welch, passed the Metro Council with a 13-11 vote on May 24. It requires restaurants that offer kids’ meals to make non-fried fruit or vegetables, whole grain products, nuts, seeds, dry beans and drinks without artificial sweeteners available as the default options for children rather than sugary drinks and fries.

The law will go into effect 120 days after Mayor Greg Fischer signs it. Fischer has indicated that will happen soon, but his spokesman Chris Kenning told Insider Louisville that the mayor still had not received the bill from the council as of May 30.

Once the ordinance is signed into law the Louisville Public Health Department will be in charge of enforcement. Compliance with the rule would simply be marked in a box on the health inspection form, and it would not count toward a restaurant’s inspection score. Fines for noncompliance range from $25 to $100.

Travis Doster, senior director of public relations at Texas Roadhouse, believes the law is an unnecessary intrusion by city government into private business. Texas Roadhouse, a Louisville-based chain, has four restaurants that will be impacted by the measure. Doster said the company would have to reprint menus and change the language on place mats.

“My guess is it’s going to impact national brands even more than they know. I was eating somewhere recently, and they had a ‘kids-sized drink’ on the menu. That will have to change. In my opinion, this was not well thought out and I think businesses are going to be passing on the extra cost to their customers,” Doster added.

The Kentucky Restaurant Association represents more than 1,000 establishments in the state. KRA President Stacy Roof said many of her Louisville area members contacted their council members to lobby against the new law. Now that it has passed she expects them to push back against it.

“We are not against healthy options, we just don’t want it legislated. I think what you will see is a lot of restaurants unbundle their kids’ meals and offer separate items on the menu without the drink,” Roof said.

Welch contends that the majority of Louisville restaurants, including Texas Roadhouse, are already in compliance with the law. She said she and Blackwell met with members of the KRA and the Kentucky Beverage Association because they wanted to be proactive in addressing their members’ concerns and to make the new law as nonintrusive as possible for them to implement.

“This law is not about taking away anybody’s choice, we wanted to get parents to think about healthy options for their kids first because we have a problem in this state,” said Welch, a former nurse.

According to “The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America,” released in August 2017, Kentucky has the seventh-highest adult obesity rate in the nation at 34.2 percent, up from 21.7 percent in 2000 and from 12.7 percent in 1990.

There is also some positive news in the report prepared by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Obesity rates declined among 2- to 4-year-olds enrolled in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) from 2010 to 2014. The rate of obesity among children dropped to 13.3 percent from 18.2 percent.

Welch hopes the new law would decrease that percentage even lower as children grow up to be adults who make good food choices. She said obesity-related diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart conditions put a strain on the health care system in the city and the state.

Doster thinks it was a bad precedent that the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association helped to mold the new law. He doesn’t believe nonprofits should be able to dictate the actions of private businesses. But Andrew Snow, advocacy campaign manager for the AHA/ASA, said nonprofits and businesses often work with government entities to shape public policy.

“I’ve heard that charge before about nonprofits and businesses. A lot of the arguments against the ordinance sidestep the fact that this is a serious health care issue. This is not the perfect solution, but in the long-term, I think it will save lives,” he said.

Hilary Caron of the Center for Science in the Public Interest | Photo courtesy of Hilary Caron

Snow did express concern about one part of the law that was changed on behalf of the state beverage association. The provision defines low-calorie drinks as being under 25 calories with no artificial sweeteners. Snow worries that some restaurants could add a little sugar to a drink that contains a natural sweetener like stevia to get around the law.

Les Fugate, KBA executive director, denied that was the intention of the provision. He said in a prepared statement: “Kentucky’s beverage companies believe in comprehensive solutions to address public health challenges such as obesity. Our companies have a long history of empowering consumers to make choices that are right for them and their families, and we are committed to offering consumers a wide variety of low- and no-calorie beverages. This includes working with our restaurant customers to provide water, milk or 100 percent juice with kids’ meals.”

Hillary Caron, senior policy associate for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the kids’ meal regulation puts Louisville at the vanguard of a growing national movement.

Louisville is the 12th locality in the nation to pass a nutrition law aimed at the problem. Most of the others municipalities are in California, but Baltimore also has a similar law. Eight states are considering statewide nutrition laws.

“It is too soon to tell what impact these laws are having in the places where they have already passed. The most important purpose is shaping long-term eating habits. In most places, implementing the laws has not been a big challenge. In California, they have a self-certification process where a restaurant owner goes online and checks a box to show they are in compliance,” Caron added.

Gibin George, owner of D. Nalley’s on South Third Street, says the new law won’t impact mom and pop businesses like his. | Photo by Michael L. Jones

Gibin George, the owner of the diner D. Nalley’s on South Third Street, said the new law shouldn’t have much impact on his business. The D. Nalley’s was closed a year and a half before George, who used to own Twig & Leaf on Bardstown Road, reopened it six months ago. The diner doesn’t offer a kids’ menu, but it does offer vegetables as sides. George said children usually get chicken fingers, grilled cheese sandwiches or french fries.

“I don’t think it will be a problem for mom and pop restaurants like me. I might change the menu a little bit, but I don’t think it’s going to change what we do. It is mostly going to affect the big chains. If I owned a franchise, I would be more concerned,” he said.