Striving to stomp out sugar

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City Council fast-tracks a new bill to bolster children’s diets, rein in soda consumption — and alter the way 10,639 restaurants in Manhattan conduct business


  • City Council Member Ben Kallos with preschoolers at the Manhattan Schoolhouse on the Upper East Side last year. He’s sponsoring a bill, supported by the Speaker and likely to pass, that would bolster nutritional standards for beverages served to kids in thousands of city restaurants. Photo: Office of Ben Kallos

“Childhood obesity will stop being the norm when children are given meal options that are all healthy.”

City Council Member Ben Kallos

It doesn’t foretell the decline and fall of sugar. It doesn’t immunize New Yorkers from heart disease. It won’t end the scourge of obesity either.

But new legislation has been quickly advancing in the City Council that backers believe would take a huge step toward promoting those goals.

The bill does this simply by elevating the nutritional standards for the beverages included in meals served to children in city restaurants.

It creates a “default beverage option” in which eateries serving kids are required to offer drinks that don’t contain added sugars or sweeteners.

This is a big deal. The measure is largely aimed at the fare of fast-food chains — the Happy Meal that McDonald’s has sold its customers since 1979, for instance.

But it applies to all 24,000 dining spots in the five boroughs, including 10,639 in Manhattan, that receive a letter grade from the city’s Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The proposed new law’s sponsor is East Side City Council Member Ben Kallos, who early this year became a first-time father of a baby girl, and he summed up the bill’s mission in familial terms: “This will make it much easier and simpler to raise happy, healthy children,” he said.

Specifically, the bill mandates that a beverage provided on a child’s menu, or in a combination meal in a restaurant, automatically default to water, sparkling water, flavored water, nonfat or non-dairy milk, 100 percent juice or fruit juice mixed with water — all in a serving size not to exceed eight ounces.

It’s not a blanket ban on soda and other sugary drinks. Parents who want to order them for their kids can still do so. Though there’s no requirement to choose a default option, the expectation is that patrons will be encouraged, even pushed, in that direction, resulting in a falloff in sugary beverage consumption among youth.

Adding teeth to the legislation is the threat of civil monetary penalties for any food establishment serving kids that breaches the law by not offering the healthier preferred options. A first violation could result in a fine of up to $500, while a second and third violation could cost as much as $1,000 and $2,500 respectively, the text of the bill says.

“The new normal should be healthy meal and drink options for our children — no matter where they are eating,” Kallos said. Only then will “childhood obesity stop being the norm,” he added.

Kallos authored a similar measure in 2014 that stalled in the Council. This time, the bill has broader support and appears on a fast track to passage.

He introduced it on Aug. 8. Council Member Mark Levine, who chairs the Committee on Health and represents part of the Upper West Side, signed on as a co-sponsor and indicated he would hold hearings on the legislation this fall.

Then on Aug. 23, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who district includes Chelsea and Greenwich Village, said he’d champion the bill to promote life-enhancing choices for kids.

“Healthy habits begin at an early age,” Johnson said in a statement. “We want our kids to have access to healthy choices, and the default beverage options under this bill supports that goal.”

With the Speaker on board, the likelihood that the measure with fly through the Council increased exponentially, and unless there’s an unforeseen hitch, the standard could be adopted late this year or by early 2019.

The measure is supported by the American Heart Association — and even the powerful trade group that represents Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group.

That isn’t as surprising as it sounds at first blush:

Starting in 2006, in a period when anti-soft drink politicians were pressuring the industry, the American Beverage Association says its members began voluntarily removing full-calorie sodas from schools, replacing them with lower-calorie, more nutritious and smaller-portion beverage options that cut down beverage calories by a hefty 88 percent.

Now, the group, whose support was announced by Johnson, is taking a similar stance on the Kallos bill as its member companies increasingly offer more options with less sugar.

“The beverage industry understands how important it is to support parent’s decisions about what their young children eat and drink,” Johnson said.

Reducing sugar for their children is what parents want, agreed Susan Neely, the trade group’s CEO. “This type of action empowers parents to make the choices that are best for their children,” she added in a statement.

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