May 26, 2022

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Want a Coke with that kid’s meal? You’ll have to order off-menu in New Orleans under this new rule | Local Politics

Children’s meals in New Orleans must come with a healthy drink by default under a new City Council ordinance that’s aimed at reining in childhood obesity but drew objections from the restaurant industry.

The new law, backed by outgoing District E Councilmember Cyndi Nguyen, received unanimous approval Thursday. The New Orleans Health Department helped craft the rule, which requires eateries to offer water, milk or a juice drink if they have children’s meals.

Kids and parents would still be able to order soft drinks, but only by going off-menu. The ordinance goes into effect on New Year’s Day 2023.

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“This is really about helping our young people to stay healthy, but not taking away the rights of our parents,” Nguyen said. “We really see this as a very simple step to educate and nudge our families towards a healthier option.”

According to Nguyen, kids aged 2 to 4 in New Orleans have a 14% obesity rate. Nutrition experts say sugary drinks are a leading contributor to childhood obesity, which puts kids at risk of diabetes, asthma and other chronic diseases.

The American Heart Association supported the ordinance, and experts in childhood nutrition also said that it could help chip away at obesity.

“I think this legislation is a step in the right direction in terms of childhood obesity prevention, but this can be considered part of an overall, long-term strategic initiative,” said Denise Holston, an assistant professor at the Louisiana State University AgCenter School of Nutrition and Food Science. “We also need to look at affordability, accessibility and availability of quality healthy food options within New Orleans, especially in underserved areas.”

While New Orleans is joining the ranks of 40 cities and four states that have passed similar laws, the ordinance drew concern from restaurant and beverage-industry representatives who said it will further burden businesses struggling because of the pandemic. They said the council should adopt a symbolic resolution instead.

“Our industry has been struggling,” said Danielle Leger of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. “We appreciate the important issues of children’s health being raised, however, we ask that you will instead adopt a resolution at this time.”

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Nguyen said she was “very sensitive” to the concerns of restaurants and worked with representatives to allow for a larger juice or fruit drink option. She also pushed back the ordinance’s effective date to next year to allow for a longer period of education and outreach to restaurants, she said.

Many large fast-food chains have already made the shift to healthy drinks by default, which means that the ordinance could affect mostly smaller and independently-owned restaurants.

The Health Department will be tasked with enforcement, based either on menu reviews for new restaurants or 311 complaints for existing eateries. First violations within a year will result in “additional education,” the second will come with a warning and the third will come with a $200 fine, according to the ordinance.

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“This is not really a penalty ordinance, this is really about encouraging,” Nguyen said.

District A Council member Joe Giarrusso said he worried that restaurants would respond to the ordinance with an “end-run” like offering brownies or ice cream instead.

Jeanie Donovan, deputy director of the Health Department, said that hasn’t been the case in other localities that have passed similar legislation. The ordinance is tailored toward beverages because they contribute the most to sugar intake, she said.

“Drinks are number one,” said Donovan.

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