Perhaps there’s something in the water in Mayagüez and Aguadilla.
Senators from these west coast cities in Puerto Rico have been especially busy during sessions since the beginning of 2015, proposing all sorts of laws involving food.
First, there was Senator Gilberto Rodríguez Valle, who took to the Senate floor at the end of January to propose “Proyecto 865,” also known as the “Programa de Niñez Saludable” (“Program for a Healthy Childhood”). Citing statistics from a recently released study about childhood obesity on the island, Rodríguez warned about a legitimate public health problem, and suggested that he had a legislative intervention that might be just the cure Puerto Rican kids need: compel teachers to identify obese kids in their classrooms, and turn over their names to authorities, who will in turn fine parents who are deemed to be “crassly negligent.”
Rodríguez lamented the “undeniable reality that we’re living in a social era in which families are very disconnected. Parents work too much and become prisoners of stress, with less and less time to devote attention to their children,” he said when announcing the program.
To combat childhood obesity, Rodríguez outlined a four-step plan that would begin with teachers identifying children who are obese or deemed to be at risk of becoming overweight. The second step would be sending the child for an evaluation, in which height and weight would be recorded and the child’s eating and exercise habits would be assessed.
The third phase would involve developing a customized plan for the overweight child, with exercise and meal prescriptions that parents would be expected to implement. A representative from the Department of Health would visit the family every four weeks to monitor progress.
If, after six months, no progress was noted, the representative would be authorized to refer the case to the Department of the Family of Puerto Rico, which could then impose a fine of up to $500 on the parents or guardians. If, after six more months, no progress was recorded, an additional fine of up to $800 could be levied.
Unsurprisingly, local and international media seized on Rodríguez’s proposal, naming it the “fat law” and heaping criticism on the senator. On February 10, the Puerto Rico Senate issued a press release in which the senator clarified — or tried to — that the “priority is health, not fines,” and that anyone arguing otherwise was simply playing party politics.
“People who focus on the fines haven’t read the project,” he fumed, though it’s difficult to do so, since it doesn’t seem to be easily available online.
Senator Rodríguez went on to say that everyone in Puerto Rico “knows we have a grave problem with obesity,” a “problem that must be corrected in infancy.” Recent studies have found that close to 30 percent of Puerto Rican children are overweight. But what the press release fails to mention — and what critics are railing against — is the fact that the “fat law” will only exacerbate the considerable amount of stress that the senator himself recognized plagues parents on the island.
Instead of viewing the problem of childhood obesity as a condition influenced by a cluster of much more serious social problems that need to be addressed — namely, food deserts, dependence upon imports, and the discrepancy between the cost of living and annual income (the median household income is just $19,518) — Rodríguez burdens his already overwhelmed constituency.
In addition to the onus placed on parents, there’s the issue of turning teachers into weight wardens, likely making already tense relations between parents and teachers more so.
Growing a “Green Hope”
Another senator from Mayagüez-Aguadilla, Maritere González, is attempting to address at least one of those bigger-picture issues: that of limited access to healthy food. On February 11, she took the Senate podium to propose PS1025, or “Verde Esperanza” (“Green Hope”), a bill that would create school-based gardens, to be tended by special education students. The program is intended to be integrated into the Department of Education’s formal curriculum for primary and secondary school students enrolled in special education classes, with the end goal of “awakening interest in and curiosity about nature and the environment… and, above all, [offering the students] the opportunity to have an independent life.”
The “Green Hope” bill didn’t get nearly as much print or air time as Rodríguez’s “fat law,” nor was it subjected to close scrutiny, though it’s lacking in particulars about how it will be funded and implemented, and what kind of projected reach and long-term effects it might have.
It remains to be seen whether either project will achieve lift-off. The response to the “fat law” has been so vehement that it’s hard to imagine it could ever be implemented, much less achieve the ambitious goals Senator Rodríguez hopes, and “Green Hope” sounds nice, if thin on details.
Whether any senators will use the current session to propose meaningful legislation addressing the real food issues confronting the island, though, is probably less likely still.