In Prince George’s Co., not a food fight — a fight over healthy foods

Leaders in Prince George’s County aren’t arguing that the county welcomes, and needs, restaurants offering healthy options. But there is heated debated over promoting, and even offering favorable loans and incentives to restaurants that do.

Council Vice Chair Wala Blegay is pushing a bill that would have the county not just promote healthy restaurants, but also make interest-free loans available to them, along with other incentives. At a committee hearing Thursday afternoon, the bill got lots of support from some restaurateurs and other healthy food advocates.

“The things we do put in our body effect us in so many different ways,” said Jeremiah Abu Baku, who owns a Fresh Green restaurant in Largo. “We do have heavy support from the community. Each day that we get new folks to come inside to visit us, they rant and rave about us having a healthy option and they really appreciate us doing so.”

One of Fresh Green’s founders, Duane King, also said the measure is important.

“We have taken this journey to attack the food desert in Prince George’s County,” said King, who by the end of the year said he’ll have opened 13 Fresh Green restaurants in the county.

Jo Saint George is a healthy eating advocate working with HBCUs. She urged the county to impose even stricter health standards, asking to make 30% of the meals, not just 30% of the menu, healthy. That way, side dishes would be considered in the health standards too. She also argued for stricter standards as to what would constitute a “healthy option.”

“We do not believe the USDA’s minimum standards should ever be used,” Saint George said. “We need to raise the standard and help people understand what health really is.”

The hearing took a turn when Sakinda Skinner, a council liaison for County Executive Angela Alsobrooks, spoke against the bill.

“The administration recognizes the importance of healthy food options,” Skinner said.

But she argued what’s being offered in the bill is simply unaffordable for the county with its current budget.

“This proposed legislation, as drafted, is another example of a new program that would require additional cost to the county,” Skinner said. “This bill, as drafted, mandates county agencies such as the health department to analyze, develop and pay for menus at no cost to the restaurant. There are also additional mandates,” she argued, “not allowing any opportunity to raise revenue to help pay for this new program.”

She said the concern is that each eligible restaurant in the county could get around $10,000.

“This administration has a tight budget and is trying to ensure that funds go to maintaining core government services that our residents expect and deserve,” Skinner said. “A program like this incurs costs, does not raise any revenue and adds another burden to government agencies.”

Council Chair Tom Dernoga said it was one of the rare times he was rendered speechless by what he had heard.

“I’m astounded. That’s probably the most myopic, outrageous statement I’ve ever heard in this council chamber,” he said. “We have a crisis of health. We’re talking about, ‘This doesn’t raise revenue.’ What we’re really talking about is saving people’s lives, saving money in our health care systems for people who won’t have diabetes, won’t have health issues that are associated with a poor diet.”

Dernoga pointed to the fact that he just found $500,000 of what he considered wasteful spending from another agency’s budget proposal.

“Some people look at the glass half full, the administration is looking at the glass totally empty,” he said.

Blegay also delivered a fiery response to Skinner’s comments.

“It is our duty as a government to protect our residents, to increase the quality of life of our residents, and this is only a penny drop,” Blegay said. “I’m looking at a budget where we’re looking at almost $10 million for a sports park. And we can’t put $2 million for healthy restaurant options?”

The bill was easily passed out of committee and will head to the full council for consideration in the coming weeks.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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