A group of activists concerned about children's access to sugared soft drinks at Ceres fast-food restaurants asked the City Council on Monday to enact a "default beverage" law that would push milk or water over Cokes with combo meals. But all five members recoiled at the suggestion, each saying parents are responsible for what their kids drink, not the government.
Lourdes Perez, a Ceres resident, member of the Ceres Unified School District Board and associate of the Cultiva La Salud organization, said some California cities like Long Beach have passed a similar ordinance. Perez came armed with 600 cards signed by Ceres residents in support of such a default beverage law.
"Here in our city, 44 percent of our children suffer from obesity or an issue of overweight so it's a very serious issue for this community, for this population," said Perez.
She surveyed local restaurants and said 14 chain restaurants support the "Healthy by Default" ordinance, including McDonald's, Jack in the Box, Wendy's, Subway and Burger King. The idea behind the local law, she said, is "to change the social norm with healthy beverages to be the default in kids' meals, so the fact that we have 14 chain restaurants really speaks to the feasibility of businesses here in our town to be able to implement and transition to make this healthy by default the norm in our community."
Despite saying that a majority of restaurants already offer water or milk with kids' meals, Perez said the council has a "powerful role to play in protecting" Ceres residents.
"Our children need that protection," Perez said.
Kanat Tibet of Public Health Advocates said the cities of Stockton, Perris, Long Beach, Cathedral City, Berkeley and Davis have passed the "default" ordinance. He denied that it was a government mandate and does not restrict business.
"Where the meal comes as a combo - where the beverage is included - if the beverage is a sugary beverage, the ordinance asks the establishment to make the default beverage water or milk and leaving the parent to make the last decision choice," said Tibet. "This is about a social norm change."
The group did not mention that there are about 12 grams of sugar in each eight-ounce glass of milk.
"I think it's ultimately, to me, the responsibility of the parents when they're ordering their kids Happy Meals ... to order them the milk or water," said Vice Mayor Mike Kline. He said as a grandparent he doesn't give a choice to his grandchildren. "I'm afraid if this body sets an ordinance then it becomes an ordinance that maybe we need to enforce and I don't see where that's enforceable. I don't think that's our responsibility to dictate to restaurants."
Councilman Bret Durossette agreed, saying "it's not the government's job, at all, period." He said government control is giving parents a "cop out of not being responsible for making the correct decisions for the children." Durossette commended Perez on her fight, acknowledging obesity is a problem but said "it's not from soda pop."
"It's the parents' responsibility," opined Councilwoman Linda Ryno. "I have three grandchildren and they never ask me for soda or fruit juice because they know they're not going to get it from me. They know the option is milk or water." She added the city has no right to "tell businesses what they should be serving children."
Ken Lane, another member, said he's troubled with government overreach.
"I am really sick and tired of government of telling me when and what to do," said Lane. "It's no different than the gas tax they passed. We just had the biggest tax hike in the state of California without the people's vote. I don't think it's government's responsibility to tell people how to run their businesses, for that matter their own homes."
Mayor Chris Vierra said while healthy drinks are "important in our society," he said "education has to start in the home."
"We're missing that link," said Vierra. "The education is not an enforcement of government coming down with a rule that tells you what you can and cannot do. It starts in the home. We all need to look in the mirror and say if our children are drinking sugared drinks, it's not because of the government, it's not because of the restaurant, it's because we're not doing our job as parents."
The mayor made the argument that fast-food restaurants are not serving up healthy food.
"Let's take a look at a hamburger and all the other stuff, not just the sugary drinks. There's a lot of bad things on there."
The council did agree to later pass a resolution enforcing the idea that healthy choices need to be made for the target group of the ordinance - the two- to eight-year-olds.