Overconsumption of sugary drinks is a major contributor to poor health. In the United States, 40,000 deaths a year are attributed to heart problems caused by consuming too many sugary drinks.
Nevertheless, children continue to consume sugary drinks at an alarming rate. Nearly two-thirds of children in the U.S. have at least one sugary drink a day.
On Jan. 1, thanks to the Healthy-By-Default Kids’ Meal Beverages Act, California became the first state to require water or milk as the beverage automatically offered with kids’ meals at restaurants. By replacing sugary drinks with healthy options as the default beverages on kids’ menus, the new law is a significant milestone in our collective efforts to encourage kids to eat and drink healthy.
For parents, knowing that a kid’s meal at a restaurant will come with a healthy drink provides some peace of mind.
Donna Hoffman Cullinan, a California mother of two young children, says her four-year-old son associates going out to eat with having a lemonade, his favorite drink. Fortunately, she notes, “young kids accept what’s put in front of them. If they receive a kids’ meal and milk is what they’re given, they’ll take it.”
Increasingly, working families are grabbing their meals on the run or eating out. Today, families in the United States eat more of their meals outside the home than in. Studies show that up to 34 percent of children eat fast food on a given day and that most kids’ meals include a sugary drink.
The new California law, Hoffman Cullinan notes, “takes some of the stress out of providing nutritious choices and makes it more the norm.”
The law passed the California Legislature with bipartisan support. Flojaune Cofer, Ph.D., state policy director at Public Health Advocates, a Voices for Healthy Kids grantee that advocated for the legislation, notes that the timing was right. Eight California municipalities and two counties had already passed similar laws. In addition, several national restaurant chains—including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and Dairy Queen—had implemented healthy beverage polices in their kids’ menus on their own.
Cofer also notes that new data from a report by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research helped build support for the bill. The report found that, although the proportion of California children who consumed at least one sugary drink per day decreased between 2003 and 2009, it began increasing again after 2009. By 2014, nearly one-third of California kids ages 2 to 11 were drinking at least one sugary drink a day.
It helped, too, that the bill had the support of a diverse range of partners such as the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, the American Heart Association, the California State Alliance of YMCA and Moms Rising.
In the end, the bill passed by a wide margin. “It just seemed like a commonsense and bipartisan solution,” Cofer says.
There’s more to do in California to reduce overconsumption of sugary drinks—a statewide tax and health warning labels on sugary drinks, for example, could build on this momentum. But the bill’s successful passage marks a significant turning point toward changing norms around kids’ eating habits.
At one time, Cofer notes, it was considered OK for people to smoke on planes. Today, that’s unacceptable.
Someday, she hopes, people will feel the same about giving kids lemonade and other sugary drinks with their meals.
That day may not be far away. The cities of Baltimore, Md., and Wilmington, Del., have passed healthy kids’ beverage ordinances, and similar proposals are pending in New York City and Washington, DC, as well as in the states of Massachusetts and Vermont.
The movement for healthier kids’ meals forges on.
To learn more about this issue and how you can help mobilize a similar campaign in your community, visit our Serve Kids Better™ Kids’ Meal toolkit. Within our toolkit, you will find helpful information to build out your own advocacy efforts aimed at developing policies that support healthier restaurant meals.