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If an Illinois restaurant serves a ‘kid’s meal,’ the default drink now can’t be a sugar bomb

A new state law says the default option must be water, milk, or another healthy beverage — and that’s great for kids.

“I want to see our children learn to make healthy choices by enjoying low-sugar beverages at restaurants,” write state Sen. Mattie Hunter, “and then carry that behavior over to the rest of their lives.”
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Even before the pandemic, Chicago was divided into two wholly unequal worlds. From food deserts to trauma deserts, our communities on the South Side are too often separated from the resources we need.

This is symptomatic of a staggering level of inequity in our city, particularly with respect to health. Chicago has the greatest life expectancy gap in the country. Residents of Streeterville live to an average age of 90 while people in Englewood — just nine miles away — live to only 60.

As we reimagine our city in light of the pandemic, we need to address these disparities and repair the racial and economic inequalities that have tormented us for decades. One place to start is to create a healthy future for our children, and that begins with what they eat.

Sugar-packed drinks can negatively impact our children’s weight, mood, and behavior, while increasing their risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes later in life. Unfortunately, these drinks are seen as part of everyday life. Many children are already consuming up to three times the recommended amount of sugar every day, and we’ve seen children as young as eight displaying early warning signs of heart disease.

Restaurants are a critical place to begin addressing this issue and inspiring more healthy behavior. Americans spend almost half of their food budget on foods away from home, and nearly 50% of our children eat at a restaurant on any given day.

That’s why I proudly sponsored the Serve Kids Better legislation, which says that restaurants that serve a kids meal must provide water, milk, or other healthy beverages as the default option. Parents can still choose to buy soda or other sweetened drinks if they want.

The reasoning is simple: I want to see our children learn to make healthy choices by enjoying low-sugar beverages at restaurants, and then carry that behavior over to the rest of their lives.

With the support of a variety of community partners and the Illinois Alliance to Prevent Obesity, an initiative of the Illinois Public Health Institute, we passed this legislation, and it was signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on August 20.

Making sure sugary beverages aren’t the default option for kids’ meals at restaurants is a step in the right direction, but there is much more work that needs to be done. We still need more community-led collaborations and partnerships between people, businesses, community-based organizations, practitioners, and policymakers to continue advancing health reform and ending inequities across the state.

The last year and a half has laid bare the imbalance that divides our city — and our state. There is no better time than now to get it right so that our children can reach their fullest potential today, tomorrow and for generations to come.

Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, is the Illinois Senate Majority Caucus whip and Chicago’s 20th Ward Democratic Committeewoman.

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