Keeping the Oversized Soda Fight in Perspective

Last week, the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, announced it will review Mayor Bloomberg's proposed ban on oversized sugary drinks and, specifically, the city's right to enforce a portion-size cap. While the city appeals its case for a third round, we should not lose sight of the reason the rule was proposed in the first place: nearly 40 percent of our city's children are considered overweight or obese and, as a result, are at risk for a host of diseases, like diabetes, that can cause serious illness, disability and death.

There is an irrefutable, direct link between obesity and consumption of sugary beverages - soda, "juice" drinks, sports drinks and other popular products. Research shows that for each sugary drink a child consumes per day, his or her risk of obesity increases by a whopping 60 percent.

Even more than adults, children's food choices are highly influenced by what's around them, including what their parents buy, the sizes of the beverages they are served and the advertisements they see (which they often don't recognize as advertising). Despite promises to the contrary, beverage companies continue to market sugary drinks to children, using social media, rewards programs, misleading packaging and advertising during prime-time television viewing to expose children to these potentially harmful products.

Recent New York City Health Department data show that New Yorkers who live in neighborhoods crippled by high obesity rates consume more than twice as many of these deadly drinks as those who live in communities with low levels of obesity. In fact, New Yorkers living in nine of the 10 neighborhoods with the highest obesity rates consume more sugary drinks compared to those in neighborhoods with the lowest obesity prevalence. This is a public health crisis - and it is the city's responsibility to do what it can to reverse it.

That's why it is essential that we change the environment in which children live today--especially for low-income children, who have some of the nation's highest obesity rates. And that's why I support reasonable limits on the sizes of sugary beverages sold in some establishments. Nothing about this ban prevents people from buying as much soda as they want; but it does help recalibrate our expectations about portion sizes.

Of course, no one thinks these rules will end childhood obesity outright. It will take a concerted effort by government, schools, parents and communities working together to improve the health of future generations.

My organization is working each day to combat the marketing practices of the junk food industry by educating children about healthy food choices. Our program, Go!Healthy, and others at organizations across the city, teach children to read food labels and to calculate the amount of sugar in beverages so they can become informed consumers who know how to make healthy choices.

We don't stop there. Through cooking, gardening, food justice and fitness programs, we expose children to the joys of healthy eating and living. Young people in these programs learn that real choice and real empowerment mean deciding to cook a healthy meal with your family or take a bike ride together.

We also provide free, healthy meals to 2,000 children each day in our early childhood and after-school programs. Our meals are cooked from scratch and created from nutritious, whole ingredients, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Further, we work with the Health Department to ensure that our sites are free of sugar-sweetened beverages.

In short, we must give children the tools to make better decisions, and surround them with healthy options. We have to show children that there is an alternative to the insidious junk food environment that lies outside their doors.

It's easy to make fun of the "nanny state," but childhood obesity is not a joke. When the court arguments begin again, remember that this decision is about our future. It's about stopping the next generation of New Yorkers from developing potentially deadly habits. And it's about breaking the cycle of childhood obesity and disease that have ruined too many lives.