Golden will soon forbid restaurants from packaging sugary drinks with kids meals

Golden will soon become the latest Colorado community to require that restaurants offer a non-sugary drink — like water or milk — as the default beverage accompanying kids’ meals, amid a COVID-19 pandemic that has pushed the country’s rate of childhood obesity to unprecedented levels.

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved an agreement with Jefferson County Public Health to have the agency enforce the new healthy beverage measure, which was passed by the council late last month, at restaurants throughout the city.

Golden joins Longmont, which passed its own healthy beverage initiative in September, and Lafayette, which was the state’s first city to implement such a measure in 2017. Aurora approved its own measure on a first reading in March 2020, as the pandemic was getting started, but never cast a second and final vote on the issue.

Golden’s new healthy beverage initiative begins June 1. Officials with the county health department will check for compliance as part of their annual inspection of eateries.

“This is just a start to reverse some of these unhealthy habits that advertising has caused,” said JJ Trout, Golden’s mayor pro tem. “We want to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

Golden’s ordinance would require that restaurants not list or show soda, juice or other beverages with added sugar as the drink of kids’ meals on its menus, but rather water, milk, sparkling water or a non-dairy milk alternative containing no more than 130 calories per container or serving.

The rule applies to chain restaurants and fast-food outlets along with local eateries in Golden. Parents could still order soda or juice for their children if they so chose.

“This is not intended to be laborious, this is not intended to be heavy-handed,” Trout said.

It’s just a small step, she said, to counter the tens of millions of dollars that beverage companies spend to advertise sugary drinks to children each year. The Colorado Restaurant Association said it would like measures like Golden’s to allow 100% juice and low-fat chocolate milk on kids’ menus “to bring this ordinance in alignment with the existing menus of national chain restaurants.”

The trade association is concerned about the cost restaurants will have to bear to reprint menus to comply with the law, especially after two years of bruising shutdowns and restrictions brought about by the pandemic.

“Restaurants across Colorado are extremely cost-sensitive right now, after two years of pandemic-related operational restrictions and decreased revenue,” said Mollie Steinemann, manager of government affairs for the Colorado Restaurant Association. “The cost of such an ordinance varies, of course, and relates to reproducing menus and website marketing materials, as well as the labor costs associated with training staff and realigning guests’ expectations when they take their children out to eat.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in September of obesity trends during the pandemic. It found that an estimated 22% of children and teens were obese in August 2021, up from 19% a year earlier.

Before the pandemic, children who were a healthy weight were gaining an average of 3.4 pounds a year. That rose to 5.4 pounds during the pandemic, the CDC found. The agency also concluded that the rate of obesity increased most dramatically in kids ages 6 to 11.

The CDC reports that for children and adolescents between the age of 2 and 19 years old, nearly 20% — or 14.4 million — were considered obese in 2017-18.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association have both endorsed healthy default beverage initiatives for children, which have been enacted in California, Hawaii and Delaware, as well as more than a dozen cities and counties in the U.S.

While health officials urge children and teens to consume fewer than 10% of calories from added sugars, data shows that they are consuming 17% of their calories from added sugars, nearly half of which comes from drinks alone, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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