Aurora City Council may nix default sugary drinks for kids at local restaurants

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A portion of a drive thru menu panel featuring Happy Meals is seen at a McDonald’s Restaurant on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018. Aurora lawmakers are considering forcing restaurants to offer water and milk to kids, unless they ask for more sugary drinks. AP FILE PHOTO

AURORA | Sugary drinks for children may no longer be the default at Aurora eateries if city council members approve an ordinance, sponsored by Councilmember Angela Lawson, which would require restaurants to serve milk or water to children unless otherwise directed by parents.

The local legislation passed out of the group’s study session earlier this month on a 6-4 vote, with the council’s more conservative council members voting against sending the proposed ordinance to the floor for a formal vote. Councilmember Curtis Gardner expressed concern that the proposal didn’t garner any support from the city’s business advisory board. Instead, the group proposed the city pass a resolution encouraging healthy drink options.

Some council members said it shouldn’t be local government’s place to tell its residents how to parent. 

“I think it’s great to educate the public and educate parents with knowledge so that they as parents can take personal responsibility to make those choices for their children,” said Councilmember Francoise Bergan during the study session. “No one forces them to eat at this restaurant or that restaurant. (It’s a) free society. You can eat at McDonalds. You can eat at Burger King. You can eat at a family restaurant. You can make those choices…I think a better path is to do an educational campaign, and actually those have been found to be very effective with the smoking movement as well…”

Others said this legislation would have had a healthy impact on their own lives as children, and that under the rules parents could still ask for a sugary beverage to be served with a meal for their child. 

“I was that kid that actually had dental problems when I was growing up because the default was a soda and my mom worked multiple jobs so yeah, we would go through the drive-thru, get some McDonalds on the way home and that was it,” councilman Juan Marcano said. “Whereas I think folks who are middle class or upper-middle class have a better opportunity to actually be receptive to educational campaigns because of availability, quite frankly.”

Lawson said the legislation would positively impact communities of color in Aurora, as they disproportionately experience high rates of obesity and chronic diseases.

Health organizations say restaurants have been offering healthier options to children these days, but drinks are still a “challenge standing between families’ access to healthy meals,” said Dr. Stephen Daniels, the pediatrician in chief at Children’s Hospital of Colorado, in a letter of support.

“We believe in making sugary drinks the exception, not the rule; the option, not the default. Fast food, casual dining and sit-down restaurants should offer healthier drinks like water and unflavored milk (or non-dairy substitute) automatically for children. These are the healthiest options for kids based on currently available science,” he wrote. “Under this approach, parents or kids could still order any drink they like. At the same time, restaurants right here in Aurora would offer healthy alternatives as the automatic drink with kids’ meals, joining local governments nationwide in making this change to reduce kids’ consumption of liquefied sugar. Imagine the good we could do for the health of our little ones if this was the standard for all kids dining out.”

The Colorado Restaurant Association didn’t reject the idea of the new law, which would be enforced through the city’s licensing department and implemented with the help of the Tri-County Health Department. They did, however, suggest that flavored milks and juices be added to the list of acceptable default drinks.