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Looking to promote healthier beverages and combat concerning childhood obesity figures, Cathedral City could ask restaurants to promote milk or water with kid’s meals and might discuss a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks later this year.
Corinne Kennedy/The Desert Sun

Looking to promote healthier beverages and combat childhood obesity, Cathedral City could ask restaurants to promote milk or water with kid’s meals and might discuss a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks later this year.

A UCLA study shows 42 percent of children in Cathedral City are obese or overweight, the third highest rate in the valley, behind Coachella and Indio, at 48 and 44 percent, respectively.

Council member Greg Pettis sent out an informal email survey asking resident if they’d support making milk or water the “default drink” for kid’s meals–an idea the council recently discussed–and if they’d support taxing distributors of sugary drinks if the revenue generated was used to fund recreational programs.

About two-thirds of those who responded to the informal survey said they supported the default drink idea. A little more than half said they did not support the tax. Pettis said that’s usually the response any new tax proposal gets.

Pettis said he had chatted about the tax with council member John Aguilar and the city manager, but that the full council had not discussed the idea yet. He said it could make its way onto a study session agenda in September or October.

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Belt-tightening measures during the recession led to the closure of the city’s recreation department and programs for kids and adults have wanted for funding ever since. Pettis said if a sugar-sweetened beverage tax were put in place, it could raise $2.5 million annually, which could fully fund programs provided by the city’s senior center and Boys and Girls Club.

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A car orders at the Jack in the Box on Vista Chino in Cathedral City on Thursday, August 31, 2017. (Photo: Richard Lui/The Desert Sun)

“If you’re drinking an 8oz or 12oz coke, to add another dime to it and know that it’s going to the kids and seniors I think would be a good thing,” Pettis said.

As with any new tax, it would have to be approved by the voters, so any attempt to implement the revenue measure would have to wait for 2018.

For now, the city has been discussing smaller steps to promote less sugary options. At an August study session, council members discussed a program that would prompt restaurants to promote milk or water, rather than soda, with bundled kid’s meals.

Alfred Mata, program manager for Public Health Advocates, said six California cities and one county had already joined the “Healthy Eating Active Living” campaign, a joint venture between PHA and the League of California Cities, funded by Kaiser Permanente.

Davis was the first city to adopt the program in 2015, with Stockton, Hawthorne, Chula Vista, Perris, Berkeley and Santa Clara County following.

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“We are in a diabetes, obesity epidemic,” Mata said of the reasoning behind the program.

However, Mata said the program was geared towards promoting healthier beverage options for kids, not banning unhealthy options. Some national chains have already made milk or water the default options for kids meals, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Panera, Wendy’s and Disney parks and resorts.

Council member Mark Carnevale, who owns and operates an Italian restaurant in town, said he wasn’t opposed to the initiative, but he wasn’t sure why the program was focusing on beverages.

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Costumers go get their food at the drive-thru-window at the Jack in the Box on Vista Chino in Cathedral City on Thursday, August 31, 2017. (Photo: Richard Lui/The Desert Sun)

“I don’t see how monitoring the drinks is going to help when they have a 2,000 calorie burger,” he said of meals at fast food restaurants.

He said he believed it was a parent’s responsibility to monitor what a child eats and drinks–both at home and in a restaurant–and he wasn’t sure if telling eateries “hey, you have an ordinance you have to offer this here” would produce the desired results.

Carnevale also asked the city attorney if city had right to tell a restaurant what they have to offer.

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City Attorney Eric Vail said it was a bit of a gray area–only a few cities have adopted this kind of ordinance and they’re all in California–but he thought the city was on good legal footing if they wanted to proceed.

Council member John Aguilar recommended reaching out to cities that have adopted the program to see if they have any data showing how effective it has been. Mayor Stan Henry said he wanted to reach out to the city chamber of commerce before moving forward to see if this was something chamber-member restaurants were already doing or if it would be an issue in any way.

Both beverage-related items are likely to come up again in the fall, as study session or council agenda items, for further discussion.

Corinne Kennedy covers the west valley for The Desert Sun. She can be reached at Corinne.Kennedy@DesertSun.com or on Twitter @CorinneSKennedy.

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