Chocolate bars tempt shoppers checking out at Andronico's on Solano Avenue. Photo: Eden Teller
Chocolate bars tempt shoppers checking out at Andronico’s on Solano Avenue. Photo: Eden Teller
Chocolate bars tempt shoppers checking out at Andronico’s on Solano Avenue. Photo: Eden Teller

Berkeley’s City Council has passed an ordinance that will remove unhealthy food from grocery store checkout aisles. The ordinance is the first of its kind in the U.S., supporters said.

The new policy will require retailers larger than 2,500 square feet to stock healthy food at the register and in areas where customers wait in line, instead of items like chips, soda and candy. It forbids food items with 5 grams of added sugars and 200 milligrams of sodium, chewing gum and mints with added sugars, and beverages with added sugars or artificial sweeteners. In Berkeley, the policy will affect stores like Safeway, Monterey Market, Whole Foods and Berkeley Bowl.

The ordinance, sponsored by Councilmembers Kate Harrison and Sophie Hahn, passed unanimously at the Council’s Sept. 22 meeting. It will go into effect on March 1, 2021, with enforcement beginning Jan. 1, 2022.

The ordinance is “really good behavioral economics,” Harrison said in the meeting. “It facilitates better choices for consumers but does not limit what they can buy.”

Holly Scheider, a member of Berkeley’s sugar-sweetened beverage commission, attended the Zoom meeting with a picnic basket to demonstrate that fruit, health bars and nuts can repopulate the sugar-laden aisles.

“As a mother of seven, I can definitely speak to the predator marketing that takes place at checkout counters,” said Ayanna Davis, director of programs at Healthy Black Families, during the public comment period. That marketing often targets communities of color, she said, citing a city equity report on disproportionately high rates of heart disease and diabetes in Berkeley’s Black community.

“This will continue to show Berkeley is a world leader in healthy living and taking on corporate predatory practices in our communities,” Davis added.

The ordinance will make grocery stores a “more neutral and health-promoting space for consumers,” said Ashley Hickson, a senior policy associate at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a national consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

Junk food manufacturers spend big to make sure their products are placed front and center in stores, Hickson said, but some consumers aren’t fond of the practice. In a survey by CSPI, 76% of shoppers who bought unhealthy food or beverages at the checkout counter regretted the purchase, she added.

CSPI began working on the ordinance with locals like Scheider in 2017. The group is working on six other similar campaigns across the country, but as the first city in the country to pass a soda tax, Berkeley was already ahead of the game.

“Berkeley has been a leader in progressive health policies for a long time,” Hickson said.

Eden Teller is a freelance reporter, writer and amateur gardener. She began reporting for Berkeleyside as an intern in 2013 and continued her career with a B.A. in Media Studies from Macalester College...