Do you want water or milk with that?
Servers at Davis city restaurants will soon be asking that question to customers ordering kids’ meals with beverages, under a new ordinance designed to discourage sugary soda consumption.
The ordinance, passed on a unanimous 5-0 vote Tuesday night, will require any Davis restaurant that offers a meal-with-drink kids’ menu to make water or milk, not soda, the primary option. Parents can still request soda at no extra charge, but must specifically ask for it.
By Sept. 1, Davis restaurants must prove compliance with the city ordinance by submitting a copy of their menu to city staff, showing they do not offer kids’ meals or do not offer soda as the automatic first choice.
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“Prior to this ordinance, the soda industry was selecting what your child would drink,” said Julie Gallelo, executive director of First 5 Yolo, a children’s health advocacy organization that spearheaded the initiative last fall. “This puts milk and water at the forefront.”
The ordinance will affect about 18 restaurants in the city, including fast food establishments – Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr. and Round Table Pizza – and local bistros and pubs. Juice with kids’ meals will not be in compliance, but sparkling water, sugarless flavored water and milk substitutes are allowed.
Restaurants defying the ordinance face fines of up to $500.
At de Vere’s Irish Pub in Davis, owner Josey McCarter already follows the new rules. She said the kids’ menu states items are “served with your choice of milk or water,” and employees have been instructed to not verbally offer soda to children.
The restaurant serves a lot of families, McCarter said, and is happy to comply with an ordinance that protects kids’ health.
“I believe it’s going to be a non-issue,” she said. “And hopefully it will shine a light on the obesity epidemic.”
The Davis move to avoid sugary drinks is part of nationwide efforts to combat child obesity. Many research studies have shown the detrimental effects of sugar on childhood diabetes, weight gain and dental health.
Legislative efforts in California to tax or even label soda with health warnings have failed, although Berkeley passed the first successful city soda tax in 2014.
In Sacramento, 50 percent of beverages and food sold in vending machines at city facilities must meet state nutritional standards. In San Francisco, fast food restaurants cannot offer a toy with a kids’ meal unless it meets set nutritional standards. In 2012, Davis city officials mandated more healthy beverage options for city-operated concessions at parks and recreational facilities.
The new Davis law will be the first in the nation to specify water or milk as the primary option in kids’ restaurant meals, said council member Rochelle Swanson. She said it will help parents make healthy choices, rather than explicitly banning anything.
According to a city staff report, one quarter of fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade students are overweight or obese.
“It’s an extra opportunity to educate,” she said. “We are weighing in as a government body about the language we should be promoting, because this is a public health issue … It’s just taking what is becoming common knowledge and making a stand.”
But Matt Sutton, vice president of government affairs and public policy with the California Restaurant Association, said sugary beverages are not a “silver bullet solution” for the obesity epidemic. Exercise, awareness and parental guidance also need to be part of the equation, he said.
“I don’t think someone approaching you and asking milk or water is going to alter your choice. Lots of people are programmed to drink soda by default,” Sutton said. “But we do appreciate the fact that it’s not a mandate and that it does allow for parental choice.”
Dorte Jensen, a Davis resident, asked the council to make the change voluntary so as to not impose more regulations on restaurants.
“If some restaurateurs want to do it, let them do it,” she said. “Otherwise, Davis will go from being the city of bikes to the city of regulations … this is kind of overkill.”
But parents such as Jackie Richardson, a single mother of two, said the ordinance will make it easier to find healthy choices, especially at quick-service restaurants. “I do feel undermined as a parent when the beverage that comes with my children’s meals is loaded with calories and non-nutritious,” she said Tuesday. “Offering milk or water is straight off the top the easiest choice.”