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Denver proposal targets soda and sugary drinks in kids’ meals at restaurants

A new regulation proposed in the Denver City Council would mandate that restaurants list just two drink options on their menus as part of combo meals for children: Water or milk?

The proposal aims to sideline sodas and sugary drinks and help drive healthier dietary choices for young Denverites at a time when health care professionals say rates of chronic illness, like diabetes, obesity and fatty liver disease, are increasing in children.

As with other recent City Council measures aimed at addressing societal ills, its members are opting for the approach of steering consumer choice by limiting the options advertised. Another Denver ordinance passed in 2021 to cut down on waste says take-out restaurants can provide single-use utensils and condiment packets to customers only upon request.

Councilman Chris Hinds, one of the sponsors of the new legislation, said the ordinance would not prevent children or their caretakers from ordering another beverage available on a restaurant’s menu. The goal, he said, is to make sure that drinks without added sugars are put in front of children before they ask for a soda or sugary juice.

“So the idea is a bit of nudge — nudging people into behaving in a way that’s best for the planet,” Hinds said during Wednesday’s meeting of the council’s Business, Arts, Workforce, Climate and Aviation Services Committee, which he chairs.

The committee voted unanimously to move the ordinance on for consideration by the entire council in coming weeks. If passed, the regulation would apply to every dining establishment in the city, from fast food restaurants to diners and fancier eateries.

Children’s meals could include water, milk or a milk substitute, such as soy or oat milk. The mandate would build on voluntary moves by some fast-food chains, including Burger King and McDonald’s, to drop at least fountain sodas from kids’ meals, though often juice is still offered.

A 2019 survey found that roughly 400 restaurants in Denver offered combo kids’ meals, said Andrea Pascual, a public health planner focused on chronic disease prevention at Denver Health. Of those, more than half were chains. Pascual led the presentation about the ordinance at Wednesday’s meeting.

The proposed change has a long list of backers, including medical professionals and local neighborhood associations.

Some supporters point to a racial equity element in limiting the accessibility of sodas and other sugar-laden drinks, which advocates say are disproportionately marketed to communities and children of color.

“As you know, communities of color have a higher risk of diabetes. And when I go to these communities, they always have some kind of testimony regarding a family member or themselves or a loved one who has diabetes,” Giannina Estrada said through a Spanish translator.

Estrada was one of several people who spoke on behalf of ViVe Wellness, a nonprofit dedicated to providing health-focused education and programming to low-income families in Denver.

The Colorado Restaurant Association has taken a neutral position on the proposed ordinance, said Colin Larson, the organization’s director of government affairs.

He said the association was grateful for the long lead time built into the bill. Restaurants would have until July 1, 2025, to change their menus. Financial support also would be offered to offset the costs of updated marketing materials.

According to the presentation, restaurants would be able to request as much as $2,000 for those purposes.

Denver isn’t the first city in Colorado to look at regulating the choices that restaurants present to consumers in hopes of improving health outcomes for children.

Lafayette banned the advertising of sugary drinks on kids’ menus in 2017. Longmont and Golden followed suit in 2022. In Longmont, restaurants can face fines up to $500 if they repeatedly violate the ordinance.

Three states — California, Delaware and Hawaii — require restaurants make water and milk the default offerings on kids’ menus.

Councilwoman Serena Gonzales-Guitterez is co-sponsoring the legislation. She is a mother of three and said she would welcome help in instilling healthy dietary habits by limiting options in kids’ meals.

“They’re the age now where of course they can read the menu and they can say, ‘I know this place has pop or soda. I know that they have this juice that I want,’ ” she said. “But when they were younger, I could definitely see the value in, as a parent, looking at a menu and saying, ‘Well, here’s what our options are.’ ”

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