As Wanda Henry left Oakland’s downtown Popeye’s restaurant last Tuesday, she held a chicken nugget meal in one hand and her grandson’s arm in the other.
Four-and-a-half-year-old Bryton carried his small soda cup containing a mix of Sprite and Strawberry Fanta—his favorite combination.
“It’s the best drink in the whole entire world!” he said in between sips.
Sodas are Bryton’s “go to choices” with kids’ meals, his grandma said, and she rarely—if ever— can get him to drink anything else. “It’s usually the first thing he’s offered,” Henry said, making it harder to say no to her energetic, outer-space-loving preschooler. But now, a new California law could make it easier for kids like Bryton to say “yes” to healthier beverage choices when eating out.
Senate Bill 1192, which was approved by the California State Assembly on August 21 and now awaits a signature from Governor Jerry Brown, aims to limit restaurants from serving sugary drinks like soda and high-calorie juices to children. The pending legislation would require restaurants offering kids’ meals to make water or unflavored milk the default beverage with the meals, although parents can still ask for a soda or juice. The default drinks would also have to be featured on menus or in advertisements instead of other choices, like soda. Restaurants found in violation of the law could receive a fine of $250 or more.
“The goal of this bill is to make it so that the healthy choice is the easy choice,” said Flojaune Cofer, director of state policy and research at Public Health Advocates, a lead group supporting the legislation.“Some restaurants already have healthy options as the default beverage, but our objective is to change things for those that don’t.”
Nine California jurisdictions, including San Francisco and Berkeley, have already passed local policies for healthier beverages in kids’ meals, and similar legislation is now slated to pass in New York City, Hawaii, and Vermont.
Many restaurants—both chain and local—in Oakland already offer a healthy beverage as the default. Several fast food chains committed to changing their kids’ meal drinks as early as 2013, with McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Jack in the Box among those already offering milk or water to children.
Others like Popeye’s, Carl’s Jr. and Panda Express—which each have at least one Oakland location—still offer soda as the default for kids’ meals. When reached by Oakland North, corporate representatives from each of the brands stated they were aware of the pending legislation but don’t have any announcements about menu changes ready.
Still, some restaurants won’t be affected by the legislation. Menus without bundled kids’ meals won’t have to abide by the new requirements.
“Yes, there are some fringes,” Cofer said. “We know we won’t be able to impact all the restaurants, but we will impact a significant portion of them, and a significant amount of kids who eat there.”
Around 63 percent of Americans between the ages of 2 and 19 drink at least one sugary beverage a day, according to the Center for Disease Control, and daily soda consumption has been found to contribute significantly to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic disease, high cholesterol and heart disease.
Dr. Jennifer Olson, director of the pediatric endocrinology and diabetes division at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, said she sees “a huge number of kids” who are overweight or obese thanks to high-calorie drinks. These children, she added, are now suffering from serious medical complications.
“There’s a significant increased risk for becoming overweight or obese if you drink sugary beverages, including juice or soda,” Olson said. “We also know that in Type 2 diabetes in teens, their risk for complications is higher than adults with diabetes and that they’re developing complications—like their eyes and kidneys being damaged—at a much faster rate and at much younger ages.”
Empty calories in juice and soda provide no nutritional value, Olson said: “All our bodies really need is water.” And because children don’t often get their recommended daily dose of calcium, she added, encouraging children to drink milk is important, too.
“Anything that would decrease the amount of sugary beverages that children and teenagers are consuming is positive for health outcomes,” Olson said. “I think this is fabulous—I couldn’t support this bill any more.”
The senate bill isn’t the first attempt to curb soda consumption in Oakland. In 2016, city voters passed a sugary beverage tax, tacking a one-cent-per-ounce tax to all such drinks sold in the city. Revenue generated from the tax is expected to be spent on health education and children’s health initiatives, with recommendations for such spending made by a community advisory board.
Shaniece Alexander, executive director of the Oakland Food Policy Council, said the soda tax created opportunities to increase health awareness in communities targeted by soda companies, and to draw attention to healthier alternatives. She said the council is still advocating to ensure that the tax funds reach people in the communities most affected by sugar overconsumption, and to hold policy makers accountable for advocating for health throughout Oakland.
Now that the tax has passed, she said increasing residents’ access to healthy food should be a priority. “For those on a fixed income and trying to make money stretch, it seems economically viable to buy the 99-cent 2-liter soda and $1 burger,” Alexander said. “It’s become more difficult to maintain a well-balanced diet when unhealthy food is disproportionately available and affordable.”
Senate Bill 1192 is a step in the right direction, Alexander added. She views the legislation as “an interruption” of the notion that soda is the only choice and the new default for restaurant drinks “changes the culture of convenience that perpetuates unhealthy habits.”
Despite the intentions of the bill’s supporters, some parents aren’t happy about the potential changes to kids’ meals. Anne Watkins, an Oakland mom of three, said she doesn’t like the government “having a say” in the choices she makes for her kids at restaurants. Citing the sugary beverage tax, she added that her frustrations about eating out with her kids have been brewing for a while.
“It’s just kind of annoying to me, really, to have all these restrictions,” Watkins said. “Sometimes I want to treat my kids when we’re out. For me, I’m wondering, ‘Is this going to eliminate that?’ I mean, what’s next? An outright ban on soda altogether?”
Supporters insist the bill is not intended to be a ban, however. According to the legislation, restaurants are still allowed to offer a soda or other beverage with a kids’ meal—the customer just has to ask.
The bill is now in Brown’s hands, although his office has not yet indicated if or when he plans to sign it into law.
In the meantime, Henry said she plans to pay attention to the bill. While she said she’ll keep taking her grandson Bryton out to eat, she hopes to use the passage of the bill as a conversation starter about healthy food and drink choices.
“If a new law is going to change the kids’ menus, I think I can be very happy with it,” she said. “If it helps me encourage [Bryton] to be healthier and make better choices for himself—and it gets that soda straw out of his mouth more often— I’m for it all the way.”