The new year marks the start of a California law that is good news for the dairy community and public health, while providing a model for nutrition-related policy and education that could benefit many in agriculture.

The Healthy-By-Default Kids’ Meal Drinks bill (SB 1192), which was signed into law in September 2018, makes a healthy beverage—water, sparkling water, flavored water with no added sweeteners or milk—the default beverage for children’s meals at California restaurants. With more meals than ever being eaten out of the home, the legislation will make healthier food choices easier for kids and families.

While families can still ask for beverages such as soft drinks, lemonade or fruit-flavored juices, the law nudges children and families to make healthy choices.

Nutrition Education at Numerous Touch Points

At Dairy Council of California, nutrition education is our foundation. Like many of our agricultural colleagues, we believe it’s critical to help kids and families learn how to make healthy eating choices. Our nutrition education starts in the schools, where we currently educate more than 1.8 million students through nutrition curriculum and the Mobile Dairy Classroom—but that’s just the beginning of our efforts. To have the greatest impact, nutrition education should include a variety of health interventions and learning opportunities designed to make healthy eating easier. This means reaching kids and families at schools, in homes, at stores and medical offices, through smartphones and—as with SB 1192—at restaurants.

It is becoming clear that successful large-scale behavior change involves a multitude of “touch points” to empower consumers to adopt healthier habits. This broad-based approach, labeled Policy, Systems and Environmental Change (PSE), is a way of modifying the environment to make healthy choices practical and available to everyone in a community. PSE strategies might include improving access to affordable, healthy foods and building sidewalks and bike lanes.

Providing children and parents with multiple nutrition education opportunities in a variety of settings makes healthy eating easier. This sentiment was recently echoed in a report titled The State of Obesity 2018: Better Policies for a Healthier America, issued by Trust for America’s Health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. 

According to the report, “In response to ongoing high levels of obesity, the United States must be bold enough to find and test new strategies. … This means communities, governments, and other institutions need to work across sectors and levels to support policies, practices, and programs that work. Over time, these investments can pay off—in lives saved and in reduced healthcare costs.”

A Critical Time for Public Health

While multilevel health interventions and nutrition education can be impactful strategies at any time, the current rates of obesity and obesity-related conditions such as heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes—which are the leading causes of preventable, premature death—make now a critical time to think outside of the box when it comes to improving the health and well-being of children and families.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence of obesity in 2015-2016 was 39.8 percent, affecting 93.3 million U.S. adults. The prevalence of childhood obesity was 18.5 percent, affecting 13.7 million children and adolescents during that same period. What’s more, in 2008 the estimated annual medical cost of obesity in the United States was $147 billion; the medical cost for people who have obesity was $1,429 higher per year than those of normal weight, according to the CDC.

Changing lifestyle and eating habits may be contributing factors to obesity prevalence and rising medical costs. For example, we know that today’s families are busier than ever. Parents often juggle work along with kids’ school schedules, play dates and extracurricular activities. The result? More meals are eaten on the go.

In fact, more than half of food expenditures in the United States are spent outside of the home, and children get an average of 25 percent of their calories from restaurant foods and beverages, according to Public Health Advocates. The shift away from home-cooked meals may mean higher consumption of calories and sugary drinks as well as challenges in accessing healthy foods. The new California legislation can be part of a multitiered solution to nudge healthier choices.

Milk Offers a Complete Package of Nutrients

Reversing childhood obesity is critical to creating healthy communities, and dairy foods are essential to healthy eating patterns. SB 1192 helps support healthy eating patterns that could be beneficial to public health. In fact, no other single food or beverage provides the same irreplaceable package of nutrients, with its unique interactions, as milk.

Milk’s nutritional portfolio includes calcium, vitamin D, potassium, protein and more. These nutrients work together in unique ways to provide multiple health benefits, including optimal growth and development in children and reduced risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. Like water, milk is a good source of hydration.

Helping children develop healthy eating patterns early on—ensuring they consume recommended amounts of milk and dairy foods, vegetables, fruits and whole grains—is an important behavior that can last a lifetime.

Opportunities for Producers and Processors of Healthy Foods

At Dairy Council of California, we proactively educate our partners, both in the dairy community and in public health, on current research regarding the health benefits of milk and dairy foods, but opportunities exist for all of us in agriculture to support initiatives that make healthy choices easy. As a grower or producer, you can advocate for access to healthful foods, serve as a champion for nutrition education and promote healthy eating patterns.

Today, the legislation on kids’ meal drinks applies only to California, which often serves as a leader in health and wellness strategies. By working together, the dairy community and others can have an even far greater impact.

About the author: Tammy Anderson-Wise serves as CEO of Dairy Council of California. As CEO, she oversees the strategic direction of Dairy Council of CA and ensures it maximizes opportunities and drives innovation to fulfill its charge as the California dairy farming families and processors contribution to community health.