A Happy Meal at McDonald’s: Berkeley is mandating that kids’ fast-food meals be served with water or milk rather than a soda. Photo: Elsie Hui/Flickr

In a regulation designed to promote health and nutrition, the city of Berkeley adopted an ordinance mandating that children’s fast food meals be served with water or milk, rather than soda as beverage. Non-dairy milk substitutes without added sweeteners, such as soy, almond and rice beverages are also acceptable under the new law. For those who choose, soda and other sugary drinks can be purchased separately, but will no longer be provided by the restaurant as the default.

The Berkeley City Council passed the bill unanimously last month, on July 11. A description of the proposed legislation, presented April 4, identified the bill as in keeping with the spirit of other recent health regulations, and identified the reduction of local consumption of sugary beverages as “a key public health priority.”

The ordinance follows the precedent of earlier healthy-by-default legislation passed in three other California cities: Davis, Stockton and Perris. Though in each of these cases regulation was structured to allow a customer to swap the default option for a sugary drink at no additional cost. The Berkeley law is the second ordinance in the country to restrict which drinks are included in the cost of the meal, following similar legislation adopted by Santa Clara County in April.

Holly Scheider was one of the chief proponents of the bill. Scheider serves as commissioner of the Sugar Sweetened Beverage Product Panel of Experts, which recommends ways to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption in Berkeley. She sees the new legislation as another gentle nudge the city can give residents to make smart dietary choices.

“The Healthy Default Beverage Policy is another tool to help families make healthy beverage choices,” Scheider wrote in an email. “These policies make the healthy choice the easiest choice, because it is what is offered with the children’s meal, and in Berkeley’s case, also the cheapest choice.”

This would not be the first time that sugar-sweetened beverages have been the target of city council policy. The most famous example is the so-called soda tax enacted by city council in 2014. The tax imposed a penny per fluid ounce surcharge on distributors of sugar-sweetened beverages. An independent study of the effects of the tax concluded that it led both to a local decrease in consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks — such as soda, energy drinks and juice with added sugar — and an increase in consumption of non-sugar sweetened drinks, such as water, juice and milk.

“The recent move to the default beverage is directly rooted to the early work Berkeley has done to promote healthy eating, for decades, in the schools and the community,” Berkeley City Councilwoman Linda Maio wrote in an email. “This policy stems directly from the considerable educational efforts that our community accomplished during our campaign to approve the soda tax. Many of us were out at tables helping residents and visitors see just how much sugar was in the sugared drinks they were serving and drinking. We showed this in teaspoon amounts, which never failed to raise eyebrows and concern.

“The industry cleverly describes sweeter content in grams, which of course most people cannot parse,” she continued. “We will take every policy step we can to steer people away from the harm these cheap and sweeter-laden drinks will deliver over time: obesity, poor dental health, diabetes, etc. Healthy meals for children is, of course, a priority.”

Berkeley is not the only such city in the U.S. to consider stricter regulation of sugary drinks. Healthy-by-default legislation has been gaining traction, with additional localities in California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky and Maryland considering bills. And at least two state legislatures — Vermont and New York — considering similar statewide regulation.

The city of Berkeley reached out to local restaurants to alert them to the legislation while it was still under discussion. Now that it is law, it will be enforced by the City’s Environmental Health Division and will be largely complaint-driven.

“The Berkeley Sugary Drink Commission will work with community groups funded by Healthy Berkeley to ensure that parents are aware of this newest law and can help ensure that businesses are aware of — and are following  — the requirements,” wrote Scheider.

Healthy Berkeley is a branch of Berkeley’s Public Health Division. The office provides funding for organizations that advocate for family health through better nutrition, such as their 2017 partnership with Berkeley Youth Alternatives, a collaboration with Church by the Side of the Road and Mt. Zion Baptist Church that aims to reduce rates of diabetes and obesity and to increase overall health of African American families in South and West Berkeley.

Customers are encouraged to report violations, such as children’s meals served with any beverage besides water or milk, to the Environmental Health Division at 510-981-5310 or envhealth@ci.berkeley.ca.us.

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Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.