Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. Friday.
The Kansas House on Friday approved a bill to prohibit city, county and school district officials from adopting certain types of healthy food policies.
The bill — House Bill 2595 — passed 89-34. It now goes to the Senate.
The measure would prevent local officials from restricting the sale of so-called junk food at restaurants, grocery stores and other retailers. It also would preclude policies that require businesses to provide consumers with more nutritional information about the food and drinks they sell. It mirrors model legislation developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a controversial organization that works with corporate executives and state lawmakers to develop business-friendly policies.
The bill is being pushed by Republicans seeking to build a firewall in Kansas against policies being implemented in other areas of the country to restrict the sale or require more extensive labeling of high-calorie foods and drinks. The cite former New York Mayor Micheal Bloomberg's failed attempt to regulate the size of sugary drinks as an example.
Supporters also want to head off any effort to use zoning and licensing laws to limit where fast food restaurants can locate. They say Kansas needs a statewide policy to create a predictable environment for businesses.
“What we’re looking for is consistency and uniformity,” said Rep. Gene Suellentrop, a Wichita Republican and ALEC member said Thursday during debate on the bill.
But opponents charge the bill is a solution in search of a problem. They say cities, counties and school districts aren’t contemplating the kind of policies the bill is intended to block. And they fear it will disrupt more modest local efforts to promote healthy eating and curb the state’s rising obesity rate, which at 31.3 percent ranks as the nation’s 13th highest.
“This bill would, I think, be harmful to hundreds of innovative and evidence-based programs and initiatives designed to improve the health of Kansans, especially children and teens,” said Rep. John Wilson, a Lawrence Democrat who works for a nonprofit organization focused on reducing childhood obesity.
Wilson said he fears the bill will have “a chilling effect” on efforts under way in Lawrence and Douglas County to create a healthy food environment. He said communities should be free to pursue such comprehensive approaches because the environments in which people live and work can “make it easy, hard or impossible" for them to make healthy choices.”
Ashley Jones-Wisner, a lobbyist for KC Healthy Kids, a nonprofit advocacy organization, said she is concerned the bill will hinder collaborative efforts to increase access to healthy foods in the Kansas City metropolitan area.
“The problem with this bill is that the language is incredibly broad,” Jones-Wisner said. “There could be a lot of unintended consequences.”
Jones-Wisner is particularly concerned about language in the bill that prohibits cities and counties from using permitting and licensing policies to address “food-based health disparities.”
“This bill could effectively tie the hands of local governments trying to retain local grocery stores in rural areas,” she said. “It could also potentially harm the work that we’re doing in urban areas to try and attract grocery stores and increase food access in low-income (urban) areas.”
“The problem with this bill is that the language is incredibly broad. There could be a lot of unintended consequences.”- Ashley Jones-Wisner, a lobbyist for KC Healthy Kids
“Nothing in this bill says that a nonprofit can’t do education about lifestyle choices with their members,” Watkins said.
Still, Rep. Erin Davis, an Olathe Republican, was uncertain about whether the bill would allow school districts and local health departments to continue nutrition education programs. So she offered an amendment to ensure that educators could continue to teach children that “an apple is a more healthy choice than a (Hostess) Ho Ho."
Opponents applauded the amendment, which passed Thursday on a voice vote, but said they remained concerned that the bill could prohibit school districts from limiting the availability of non-nutritious items in vending machines.