Health & Medicine

Davis considers making restaurants offer kids milk, not soda

New York City tried to ban supersized sodas. Berkeley just passed a soda tax. Now the city of Davis is considering taking a shot at sugary drinks blamed for childhood obesity.

Officials in the university town moved forward earlier this month with a proposal that could eventually change the way restaurants sell soda to kids by requiring water and low-fat milk to be the standard beverages offered with children’s meals. Parents would have to ask for pop.

“Right now, at most restaurants with kids’ meals, you can order a meal and the default is that it comes with a soda. If you want a milk or a water instead of that soda, the parent has to ask for it (often at an extra cost),” said Julie Gallelo, executive director of First 5 Yolo, a county organization that advocates for children’s health.

The group is working with Davis leaders to craft a plan to help limit children’s soda intake. About one-quarter of Davis students in fifth, seventh and ninth grades are obese, and “sugary beverages play a central and unique role in the obesity epidemic,” city staff members wrote in a report to the Davis City Council.

Council members instructed staff to proceed with drafting an ordinance to curb soda consumption by kids in restaurants.

Gallelo said First 5 Yolo’s idea is that a restaurant server would ask: “ ‘Would you like or milk or water with that?’ It would change the question asked by the counter worker.”

Some restaurants already do so voluntarily, including the Subway, Chipotle and McDonald’s chains, Gallelo said.

“They are leading the way in these healthier kids’ meals,” she said.

A city ordinance could require all of Davis’ 120-plus restaurants to offer milk or water first. If Davis made it mandatory, it would be the first city in the state to pass such a measure, she said.

Moving ahead with the plan would put Davis in the growing ranks of local governments taking aim at sweetened drinks as a way to reduce obesity in children and adults.

An ordinance enacted in New York City in 2012 at the urging of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg banned the sale of sodas over 16 ounces in fast-food restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses. But a series of state courts ruled the ordinance invalid, saying the city had exceeded its authority.

In November, voters in both San Francisco and Berkeley were asked to decide on measures that proposed additional taxes on sugary drinks. The San Francisco measure, which required a two-thirds majority to pass, failed at the polls. But Berkeley’s penny-an-ounce sales tax passed with 75 percent of the vote, and the East Bay city became the first in the nation to enact a special soda tax.

Thirty other communities around the nation have proposed but failed to adopt soda taxes. The idea of a national soda tax also has been floated in Congress.

The debate over soda regulations often hinges on how far government should reach in pursuit of public health. The Davis proposal is unlikely to be an exception, officials there said.

“I think it’s going to be a mixed bag, because we’ve got people who are looking at it purely from a health perspective and seeing that as being the top priority, and you’ve got other people who are going to be looking at it from privacy rights: How far does government go in terms of dictating what people are allowed to eat and drink?” said Deputy City Manager Kelly Stachowicz.

Davis, like other cities around the nation, already has some limits on the sale of sugary beverages at its public pools and parks.

Telling restaurants how to operate is a different matter. Some city officials have suggested that a better approach might be to encourage restaurants to voluntarily refrain from including sodas with kids’ meals and applaud those who cooperate, Stachowicz said.

The city took a similar approach to Picnic Day, the annual UC Davis town-and-gown celebration that became tarnished by drunkenness and crime in recent years.

Some bars traditionally opened at dawn, giving an early start to binge drinking. Those that comply with the city’s request not to open before 11 a.m. receive public recognition.

“It’s not a requirement that they do it. It’s not a law. It’s not an ordinance,” Stachowicz said. “It’s basically, ‘If you do this, we’ll give you good press and publicity.’ It’s a ‘Good Housekeeping’ feeling.”

Call The Bee’s Hudson Sangree, (916) 321-1191.