The Davis City Council unanimously and with enthusiasm passed an ordinance making the city the first in the nation to make non-sugary drinks the default for children’s meals at restaurants. Councilmembers, as well as members of the community, emphasized the epidemic of childhood obesity and incidents of childhood onset of diabetes as informing the need to make this change.
Staff noted the lack of controversy on this issue as they received only three responses to a survey, two of which were positive. Councilmember Rochelle Swanson attributed that to the outreach work by staff “to really make sure that there has been dialogue on this issue.”
Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis stated, “To me the ubiquity of sugar in our diets goes way beyond beverages [and] is just a testimony to a failed food system.” He liken it to a comment on the oil trains, “A lot of times there’s not a lot we can do locally against an onslaught in this case, official government policy in the form of the farm bill to support the overproduction of corn which leads to more sugar.”
He continued, “There’s not much we can do as a city against the onslaught of an industry that knows how to push our genetic buttons the way we evolved on the savannah to like that thing that’s sweet and we could get it in small quantities, now we can get it in big. There’s not much we can do – and I think this is something we can do to raise our hand and say that we value the health of our community.”
The health of our children is the responsibility of the community, he said. “I do not see it as a civil liberties issue at all – we all pay the cost of these things. The default in our society is that every decision that limits in some way a person’s default behavior, which this doesn’t do, is an attack on our basic civil liberties. I reject that notion. We have public health priorities that we must meet.”
A number of county and representatives from First 5 Yolo came forward to speak during public comment.
County Supervisor Jim Provenza, who chairs the First 5 Commission, spoke before the council during public comment. He said that First 5 Yolo is going to spend $2 million this year helping children 0 to 5 deal with the consequences of poverty. He said, “This ordinance is one where we can accomplish a lot without costing any money – just a very simple preference, a default option for non-sugary drinks.”
He called it a “no-brainer,” stating, “The idea that a three-year-old goes into a meal at a restaurant and the default option is a substance that will harm her is just outrageous.” The only thing this ordinance does is it sets the default to milk or water.
He called it “an education for parents and an education for children without really telling anyone what to do.” “The benefits of that will extend throughout their lifetimes,” he added.
Denita Stromgren, a First 5 Commissioner, spoke as well. She asked rhetorically, “Is there really a problem here?” She answered her own question, “The research has shown us that in fact there is a problem that the incidence of overweight and obesity in young children has in fact tripled in the last two decades – a lot of that is attributed to the increase in sugar beverages.”
Drinking soda and sugary juice “increases the child’s chance of being overweight by over 60 percent. These are really high numbers and very concerning.” She also cited the increase in dental caries, which she cited at between 80 and 100 percent.
She said, “Clearly, the research suggests that something different should be done.”
Ms. Stromgren then addressed whether it should be the role of the city council to mitigate the impacts related to these problems. “For close to 20 years I supervised the city’s child care services office, and in that role we performed a tremendous amount of information and sharing with parents on parenting issues – and they were very appreciative of the role we could play both in terms of providing them with the information and the support so they could be better parents.”
“I think this is really just another tool that helps parents to be better parents,” she said. “It gives them those options that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”
She then addressed whether this will actually change behavior – will parents choose the healthier option if offered it as a default? She said when she was a teenager, her father insisted that they have water rather than any other beverage and that stuck with her for many years. “I think that the kinds of things that we do with our families have long term impacts on the habits that children form throughout the years.”
Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, based in Davis, said the center led the campaign to get soda and junk food out of the schools in California.
“I want to applaud this council for considering this ordinance,” Dr. Goldstein stated. “We are in the midst of a skyrocketing diabetes epidemic. Diabetes rates in the United States have quintupled five-fold in the last fifty years.”
One-quarter of teenagers have either diabetes or pre-diabetes, the doctor told the council. One-third of all kids and half of kids of color will have diabetes at some time in their lives.
“It is true there are a lot of contributing factors to both the childhood obesity and the diabetes epidemic,” he said. “But without question, sugary beverages are the leading contributor. One twenty ounce soda has 16 teaspoons of sugar. Imagine eating 16 teaspoons of sugar.”
These beverages “deliver their sugar in liquid form. These beverages are nothing other than a sugar delivery device. Because it’s delivered in liquid form, it’s absorbed into the body in as little as 30 minutes. That sugar then, over time, overwhelms the pancreas, wears out the pancreas and is converted in the liver into fat. Now we have kids who have fatty liver disease as if they’re alcoholics. They’re not drinking alcohol, they’re drinking sugar and the sugar gets converted into fat in the liver.”
He said, “There is no reason that kids should be given a sugary beverage when they go to a restaurant – without their parents asking for it.”
He called this policy as libertarian as it gets – “parents still get to have a complete choice. But the default will be the healthy choice.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting