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WIC Steps Up During the Infant Formula Shortage and Beyond

Mother smiling at daughter while she eats and apple

From job loss to school closures to inflation, U.S. families have been facing massive challenges to accessing affordable, healthy food. The infant formula shortage is yet another crisis parents and caregivers are dealing with. For nearly two months, 20% of formula products have been out of stock nationally – and more than 40% of products are out of stock in several states including Colorado and Kansas. 

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) has been key to helping families during this crisis. We spoke with Brian Dittmeier, senior director of public policy at the National WIC Association, to discuss how WIC has supported families during the infant formula shortage and throughout the pandemic. 

Families first faced the economic hurdles of COVID-19, inflation and job loss, and now the infant formula shortages. What role does WIC play in times of crisis?

No matter the circumstances, WIC is focused on healthy pregnancies, healthy births and healthy kids. WIC works to insulate families from inflation and rising food costs by providing foods based on quantity as opposed to by cash value. This allows for the same level of nutrition to be delivered regardless of food price. The only exception to this dynamic is the fruit and vegetable category, where the cash value benefit has been increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, not just to account for inflation and rising food costs, but to more robustly address the nutritional needs of pregnant and postpartum women and young children participating in the program. 

In addition to connecting families with healthy foods, WIC’s clinical services are an incredible support during COVID-19 and other crises. WIC’s nutrition and breastfeeding counselors take on many hats to support their community and to be a resource, a confidant and a source of encouragement for families during challenging times.

What challenges has the WIC program faced over the course of the pandemic? What policy changes has WIC made to address these challenges?

WIC providers have truly adapted program services to account for the limitations and the public health precautions presented by COVID-19. WIC has innovated to deliver more flexibility for WIC families and present options that are more consistent with healthcare settings, especially through the introduction of telehealth and remote appointments that had been scarce before the pandemic. With these flexibilities, WIC has reported a 10% increase in children who participate in the program during the pandemic, completely reversing a decade-long trend of declining participation among children. 

More flexible services have empowered WIC to have a broader reach among the eligible population, ensuring that more families are connected with this critical public health support. In addition to remote services, the increase in WIC’s fruit and vegetable benefit has ensured that families have more resources and WIC participants have enhanced purchasing power to access nutritious foods that are the foundation for health. 

The USDA has said it plans to take action to address infant formula access through WIC, including launching online shopping and most recently extending flexibilities for manufacturers. Can you talk about what those changes could look like?

The infant formula shortage is not a WIC-specific crisis, but thankfully the WIC program has been able to implement broad flexibilities to help address it. WIC providers are able to offer not just additional brands, but additional container sizes. Providers responded swiftly to ensure that all WIC participants could be treated like any other consumer with respect to product exchanges at the beginning of the recall. We’ve also been carrying forward the successful innovations that were tested during COVID-19, such as remote services and online shopping.

After supply is shored up, the federal government needs to take a close look at how babiesare fed in this country. We need to evaluate all of the policies that impact breastfeeding success and formula availability – including hospital and employer policies, marketing practices, and the resiliency of the infant formula sector. When it comes to WIC contracting, any changes must be mindful of the savings generated by sole-source contracts and must preserve the bipartisan consensus that WIC should be funded at an appropriate level to assure access to all eligible participants.

Looking into the future, how do you see WIC evolving to continue to support families? 

Fundamentally, WIC’s core mission has been proven to be a public health success. Access to healthy foods, coupled with individualized nutrition and family counseling services, has made a difference on pregnancy and birth outcomes, breastfeeding rates, and the onset of chronic diet-related conditions, including childhood obesity. But there’s still work to be done. Access to nutrition and counseling support needs to be accessible to everyone regardless of income. 

WIC’s professional workforce is well positioned to support all families in making healthy choices. Through innovative partnerships with Medicaid and private health plans, WIC’s services could be expanded beyond the income limitations to ensure that the program is positioned as a go-to community resource that bolsters access to healthy foods and individualized nutrition counseling.

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Fighting Back Against Companies’ Behind-the-Scenes Tactics to Market Sugary Drinks to Kids

Sugary drinks advertising in the United States is pervasive—from social media and video games to TV and billboards. And the majority is targeted at Black and Hispanic youth.

These ads are part of the beverage industry’s strategic marketing campaign, ripped right out of the tobacco playbook, to sell their products to kids, intentionally making sure they keep coming back for more. 

Their tactics range from overt—using kid-friendly characters to entice youth—to the covert: blocking government interference in their marketing schemes and fostering the illusion of healthy products. Fortunately, advocates are fighting back and making strides to protect kids’ health. 

Parallels Between Beverage and Tobacco Industries’ Marketing Practices

We talked with Kelly Brownell, PhD, director of the World Food Policy Center, professor of public policy, and former dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, and Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, about tactics that the beverage and tobacco industries use to market unhealthy products to kids and how advocates are fighting back. In a related commentary, we explore how beverage companies pour billions of dollars into marketing campaigns that target children.

Block Government Intervention

Beverage companies go to great lengths to ensure that government policies don’t interfere with their ability to target young audiences. They form political allies through manipulation and funding lobbying efforts to prevent bills that may harm their industry and ensure that industry-friendly policies make it through.

Matthew Myers

“Beverage companies spend massive amounts of money, hiring very well-paid lobbyists, to create confusion with legislators and to justify not taking reasonable, responsible action. Often providing legislators with alternate policy frameworks that divert attention from everything that needs to be done.”

Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

Industry’s efforts to counteract taxes on sugary drinks, which have been proposed as a strategy for reducing obesity and raising revenue for public health measures, is one example.

Video transcript, from Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director, World Food Policy Center: “When the industry finds something that they don’t like, like soda taxes, which they really don’t like… It’s been their number one policy priority, to stop soda taxes. When that’s the case and they can’t get it done by lobbying and doing stuff in communities, they will very often go to a level of government and ask the government, that level of government, to forbid lower levels of government from taking an action like doing soda taxes. And it was right out of the tobacco playbook.”

Create An Illusion of Health

And with so-called “healthier” alternative options to their products, such as “premium waters,” “diet” sodas and “zero-sugar” products, beverage companies can convince customers that they’re looking out for public health. It’s a tactic that’s worked well for Big Tobacco, which provided filters, e-cigarettes, and other options that foster an illusion of health and safety, keep consumers from quitting their products, and even bring in new consumers. 

“Beverage companies’ claims about introducing more water products and reducing the number of high-sugar products in schools are really efforts to prevent policies that would make it much harder to market or sell unhealthy drinks at cheap prices.” 

— Matthew Myers

Protecting Children’s Health 

Fortunately, just as they’ve done with the tobacco industry, advocates have made strides in both raising awareness about beverage company marketing tactics and developing tactics to prevent marketing and sales to children.

For example, the updated Nutrition Facts label, which took effect in January 2020, now includes the amount and percent daily value of added sugars in addition to total sugars.

National menu labeling guidelines, a provision of the Affordable Care Act, require chain restaurants and other similar food retail establishments to provide nutrition information (including added sugars) to consumers upon request.

And seven U.S. cities and the Navajo Nation have passed taxes on sugary drinks, ranging in value from one to two cents per ounce. Research has generally found that the taxes result in people buying significantly fewer sugary drinks. Some studies show people are consuming fewer sugary drinks overall after the taxes pass. And, revenue programs are helping to address health and socioeconomic inequities in some communities.

Kelly Brownell headshot

“Soda taxes would be at the top of my list. They have produced the most consistent, positive data on reduction in consumption of the beverages and they are politically feasible. Soda taxes exist in about 50 countries internationally, and in major U.S. cities such as Oakland, Philadelphia, Seattle, and San Francisco. The next frontier in the United States will be getting states to pass taxes and not have to rely on actions city-by-city. ”

—Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director of the World Food Policy Center, Professor of Public Policy, and Former Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University

Continuing to raise awareness about the beverage industry’s harmful marketing tactics is another critical strategy—and something that has worked similarly well for anti-tobacco advocates.

We can count this as progress, but there’s more to be done. The bottom line is that sugary drinks harm children’s health. They contribute to obesity and other serious diseases such as diabetes, which disproportionately affect Black and Latinx communities and increase risk for more severe cases of COVID-19.

“We need to empower communities and hold companies and public officials accountable. If we stick within the normal, traditional public health tools, the industry will outsmart us and undermine the efforts.”

— Matthew Myers

It’s more important than ever for local leaders, advocates and partners to come together and find bold, new ways to prevent harmful and unfair marketing tactics that put kids’ health and future at risk.



Sugary Drinks and Tobacco—Different Industries, Same Playbook

Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director of the World Food Policy Center, Professor of Public Policy, and Former Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids share insights about why sugary-drink marketing is so dangerous and what we can learn from its historical ties to the tobacco industry.

Kelly Brownell headshot

“Kids are so important to beverage companies because brand loyalty starts early and lasts a long time. And if these kids are off onto a lifetime of consuming these sugar beverages and they prefer my brand over yours or yours over mine, that’s how these companies cash in.”

—Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director of the World Food Policy Center, Professor of Public Policy, and Former Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University

How Are Companies Marketing Sugary Drinks?

On average, kids in the United States will see dozens of advertisements every single day, many for sugary drinks and junk food. And children are being exposed to more ads for sugary drinks than ever before, a growing concern because sugary drinks are the single largest source of calories in children’s dietsproviding nearly half of kids’ added sugar intake.

Beverage companies spend nearly twice as much on ads for sugary drinks as they do on ads for unsweetened or diet beverages and they target Black and Hispanic youth.

$1B

Beverage companies spent $1 billion in ads in 2018, disproportionately targeting Black and Hispanic youth.

2X

Black children saw 2.1 times as many sugary drink ads compared to white children in 2018.

$84M

Beverage companies spent $84 million in ads on Spanish-language TV for soda, sports drinks and energy drinks in 2018up 80% since 2010.

These ads and the billions of dollars behind them are part of a strategic marketing campaign by the food and beverage industry to get kids hooked on their products.

Their tactics come straight from the tobacco playbook–and kids of color are most frequently targeted. This is especially concerning because sugary drinks are a major contributor to obesity, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions that disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic children.

Parallels Between Beverage and Tobacco Industries’ Marketing Practices

They Spend Money to Influence Consumers

The connections between the tobacco and food industries go back decades. Until recently, many of these companies, including well-known brands such as Kool-Aid and Marlboro cigarettes, were one and the same, managed under umbrella corporations such as RJR Nabisco and Philip Morris.

Matthew Myers

“The marketing tactics beverage companies use are identical to what the tobacco industry did, which is to create an imagery for their products that makes them cool to young people. Their ads have very little to do with the product itself, because there’s very little good to be said about the product in that way.”

—Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

And to this day, both industries continue to employ the same unfair practicestactics that may seem benevolent but, in fact, disguise strategic advertising techniques aimed at specific populations. For example: funding projects such as playgrounds in communities of color or sponsoring Black and Hispanic celebrities and sports figures.

Video transcript, from Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids: “Their marketing tactics are identical to what the tobacco industry did, which is to create an imagery for these products, to make them cool to young people, to make them part of your lifestyle, to make them part of the social attributes that every young person wants to be. It has very little to do with the product itself, because there’s very little good to be said about the product in that way.”


They Make Sure Kids Have Easy Access

In some cases, that involves the beverage industry infiltrating spaces where kids congregate—placing products and ads everywhere from schools and playgrounds to recreational fields and professional sports arenas.

Video transcript, from Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director, World Food Policy Center: “The infiltration of the schools is very concerning. The companies have said they will change the mix of products that are in the machine, so they’ll have fewer sugar beverages and more diet beverages and water and things like that. In my mind that’s almost irrelevant because the payoff for the companies in schools isn’t what the kids are buying, it’s the marketing that goes on every time somebody walks past that big red Coke machine. That’s the exposure that they’re looking for. So they can change the mix of what’s in the machine all day long and it may not make much of a difference in the kids’ overall nutrition because the kids are imprinting on a brand.” 

With infiltration, kids get ongoing, consistent exposure and easy access to a company’s products. That means increased sales for beverage companies and the cultivation of brand loyalty from an early age.

Video transcript, from Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director, World Food Policy Center: “Kids are so important to those companies because brand loyalty starts early and lasts a long time. And if these kids are off onto a lifetime of consuming these sugar beverages and they prefer my brand over yours or yours over mine, that’s how these companies cash in. And they treasure those children in a perverse way and need the kids for their future business.”

Are Their Tactics Working?

Nearly two-thirds (61%) of U.S. children and youth consume sugary drinks each day; among children ages 2 to 4, nearly half (46%) do. Black and Latinx children consume more sugary drinks than white or Asian children do.

Percentage of kids ages 2 to 19 who consume sugary drinks on any given day, by race and ethnicity. Source: NHANES, What We Eat in America, 2015-16

And the latest national data from 2017-2018 show 19.3% of children ages 2 to 19 have obesity, with rates disproportionately higher among Black, Hispanic, and Mexican American youth.

As the pandemic and its related economic consequences continue, experts believe kids’ risk for obesity may be increasing due to limited access to healthy food, fewer places or chances to be physically active, and families facing financial challenges. Increased risk for obesity, may increase risk for harmful outcomes from the COVID-19 virus. This is especially concerning among kids of color, who have higher rates of obesity and have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Learn more about how sugary drinks harm kids’ health and policy efforts to address the problem.


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Bold Solutions for Healthier Kids and a Healthier Planet

young girl holding lettuce in a garden
A young child harvesting lettuce in an urban garden.

Obesity, hunger, and climate change are inextricably connected. These three pandemics represent the “Global Syndemic” that impacts people’s health in every country worldwide and the health of our planet.

The high prevalence of hunger and obesity among young people is particularly alarming, as both conditions impair children’s development and increase risk for chronic diseases.

We spoke with Vivica Kraak, PhD, RDN, Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech, and co-author of Lancet Commission’s 2019 Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, And Climate Change report, about how we can address these issues to benefit both children’s and the planet’s health today and in the future.

“Children have the right to grow up in a healthy environment. It’s our responsibility as adults and leaders to protect their health and our planet now—and for generations to come.”

—Vivica Kraak, PhD, RDN, Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech

What is driving the Global Syndemic?

There are several common drivers, including our transportation systems, urban design practices, and even weak policies developed by governments. But our food systems, or how we grow, transport, sell, and consume and dispose of food, are one of the most significant drivers of the Global Syndemic.

That’s because they are unhealthy—largely designed to support a diet high in ultra-processed foods, sugary beverages and red meat, which promote diseases including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancers. And our current food systems are unsustainable—how we produce food, especially foods from animals, drives greenhouse gas emissions that harm the environment and contribute to conditions such as extreme weather and drought, which impact crops and the food supply.

A recent study found that 34% of greenhouse gas emissions are driven by the world’s food systems.

Who’s most impacted by the Global Syndemic?

These challenges affect all of us but the burden is not evenly distributed, which makes it an equity issue. Some of us experience it more intensely, depending on where we live or work, our race, level of income, or current health.

People of color and children and families living in poverty and experiencing food insecurity are particularly impacted.

For example, in the United States, racism has permeated our communities and institutions—not only our legal system and our educational system, but also how our communities have been planned, who has access to resources, and who can get financing to buy a house or land.

All of this impacts health and these inequities are one reason we see higher rates of obesity and food insecurity among children of color.

How do we tackle these challenges?

One of the best things we can do is shift to a planet-friendly diet.

That means focusing more on fresh, minimally processed, and plant-based foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. And consuming less red meat and dairy. That’s better for our health and better for the planet.

A graphic showing a plate of food that would reflect planet health.
A planetary health plate focuses on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and plant-based protein sources.
Video transcript, from Vivica Kraak, Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech: “Our current food systems are unsustainable, they’re unhealthy, they’re driving greenhouse gas emissions. They’re driving poor diet, they’re driving obesity and chronic diseases. So dietary shift is one of the most substantial things that we can do–shifting our diet from primarily red meat to a minimally processed plant-based diet.”

What are we doing well? What are some things we can do better?

I think one of the best things we’ve done here in the United States is implement strong nutrition standards for school meals. That means children have access to good quality food in school, which helps them learn and grow.

And in the United States alone, school meals reach over 30 million kids, including a high percentage who are from families with low incomes.

So aligning school meals with a planet-friendly diet has great potential. If we do a better job of offering and marketing appealing, healthy plant-based meals in schools, kids will eat them.

Image of fruit in buffet line
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Addressing Climate Change Through Food Policy

A study published in Health Affairs finds that aligning national nutrition standards for school meals with the EAT-Lancet Commission’s planetary health diet would provide high-quality nutrition for kids, reduce food costs, and benefit the environment.

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The U.S. government could also do a much better job at supporting sustainable dietary principles through national dietary guidelines that are healthy and environmentally and socially sustainable.

Other countries—such as Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Norway, and Qatar—have incorporated environmental sustainability principles into their guidelines. That has not yet occurred in the United States.

The administration could also consider ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Currently, we are the only remaining country in the world that has not ratified this international treaty to protect children’s right to healthy foods, health, and supportive environments.

These ideas are just a start. We need to apply the science and collaborate across borders to use a systems approach to create bold new solutions that prioritize children’s health and reverse the impacts of climate change.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the Global Syndemic?

COVID-19 has brought obesity and undernutrition to the fore.

On one hand, obesity is a risk factor for the COVID-19 virus and that’s endangering a lot of lives. On the other hand, many families are dealing with financial challenges and other issues that limit their access to high-quality nutritious foods.

The good news is there’s been some powerful innovation, especially on the part of schools, districts, and partners to address child hunger and nutrition.

Offering universal healthy meals even when school doors are closed is a win. And what we need now is strong legislation to ensure these meals continue beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Access to daily healthy, nutritious meals shouldn’t take a pandemic—it should be a child’s right.

Video transcript, from Vivica Kraak, Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech: “Our food system vulnerabilities have really been exposed due to COVID, but it’s allowed different groups working on various solutions to really work across silos and work across disciplines. So I think it’s forcing us to use equity, and justice, and hopefully human rights, so that we can really address many of the complex drivers of the problems that we’re facing.”

What’s your message for policymakers?

Children have the right to grow up in a healthy environment. It’s our responsibility as adults and leaders to protect their health and our planet now—and for generations to come.

So we really need a paradigm shift.

Our policy responses to date are inadequate; we can’t solve these challenges in isolation. We need bold solutions that address hunger, obesity, and climate change at the same time.


Stories and Expert Perspectives

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Fighting for Food Justice

People harvesting vegetables at D-Town Farms in Detroit
Adults and children harvesting food at D-Town Farm in Detroit, Michigan.

Malik Yakini, co-founder and executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, shares insights about his work to advocate for food justice and why it’s so important to ensure people have ownership of their food systems. His organization operates a seven-acre farm, which is the largest in Detroit.

Malik Yakini

“Access to good, clean, sustainably grown food is a basic human right.”

—Malik Yakini, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network

In the United States, we have the technology and the know-how to grow enough food to feed all human beings. But that isn’t happening.

Hunger is real for millions in America, particularly in Black and Brown communities.

Clearly, we need to do more than just make sure people’s bellies are full. We need to address the root causes of inequities that put high-quality nutritious food out of reach for so many, including the tremendous disparity in wealth that is created by the global system of capitalism and the legacy of slavery.

“We need to build more fair, resilient, and localized food systems, and break away from the industrial food system that has a stranglehold on us now.”

That’s why, in Detroit, we’re working to create food sovereignty—where the food system is shaped, defined, and controlled by the people who are producing and consuming the food.

As most people know, Detroit really made its mark on the world in the last century as the automobile capital of the world. But as the U.S. domination of the global auto market began to decline, so did the economy of Detroit. Today, about 30 percent of the population lives at or below the federal poverty level. Many Detroiters go hungry, particularly Black residents, and the pandemic has only made food insecurity in the city worse.

The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network focuses on helping people have control of the systems that provide their food so they’re really exercising agency and shaping their own destiny.

“I believe deeply that solutions to the problems every community faces are embedded within those communities, and what we really need are resources funneled to those communities so the visionary leadership that already exists in those communities can manifest.”

It starts with food production. 

In Detroit, we have a tremendous urban agricultural movement—one of the most robust urban agriculture movements in the country. Most people are concentrated in urban areas, and so it makes more sense, both in terms of getting nutrient-dense food to people quickly, and also in terms of doing the least harm to the environment, to grow food closer to where we have centers of population density.

That’s why we started D-Town Farm in 2006.

Today it’s a seven-acre farm in the city where we grow more than 30 different fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The farm features four hoop houses for extended-season growing, bee-keeping, large-scale composting, farm tours, and an annual harvest festival.

Tending to the crops at D-Town Farm.

Next, we need to look at how we buy and sell food. 

We need co-ops on all levels: farmers and producers’ co-ops, distribution co-ops, and cooperatively-owned grocery stores. Co-op businesses foster economic strength in neighborhoods and empower residents with more equitable pay and ownership in the company. 

The food we produce at D-Town Farm is sold at farmers’ markets and to wholesale customers. We’ve also established the Detroit People’s Food Co-op, which currently has more than 1,300 member owners and is scheduled to begin construction in the next few months.

People harvesting vegetables at D-Town Farms in Detroit
Community members working together in a greenhouse.

We also need to look at how municipal governments, colleges, universities, churches, and other institutions buy food, because they all have tremendous purchasing power.

Finally, if we want the food justice movement to be sustainable, we must intentionally engage young people. 

Everything we do is rooted in making sure that Black children have a greater understanding of their own history and culture, and where they fit in the historical continuum.

It was that thinking that prompted us to start the Food Warriors Youth Development Program, where we teach youth about the food system so they become empowered to make decisions that benefit their health, their communities, and the environment for generations to come.

A man shows a child how to harvest vegetables
Adult teaching a child about planting and growing food.

I have not seen much in history that gives me hope that the corporate sector will make much change without tremendous pressure that affects their bottom line.

If we begin to shift power away from the industrial food system to support small-scale, regenerative, sustainable, local initiatives, we will create more self-reliant communities and be a lot further along toward having food justice.

Malik participated in a global learning exchange with farmers in Malawi, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to share lessons around building community power, that are captured in the documentary The Ants and the Grasshopper. Watch the Reimagined in America webinar to learn more.


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In Mexico, Healthy Food Is a Child’s Right

Ana Larrañaga is an activist for the right to nutritious food who works with Salud Crítica, a public health advocacy organization based in Mexico City. Ana shares insights about national and state policies passed in Mexico during the pandemic that aim to protect children’s health and prevent obesity.

Ana Larranaga headshot

“Children have the right to be in environments that are health promoting and free of unhealthy foods and drinks.”

—Ana Larrañaga works with Salud Crítica, a public health advocacy organization based in Mexico City

Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, legislators in Mexico moved swiftly to ban the sale of unhealthy foods and beverages to children.

Oaxaca was the first state to approve junk food bans.

This started as a true grassroots movement, ignited by the strong community advocacy of 13 different Indigenous groups who were determined to protect people from diabetes and obesity—and prevent the displacement of traditional foods that are deeply rooted in their culture. They fought to prohibit distributors from delivering sugary drinks and junk food to their local stores.

This sparked a domino effect. The Mexican states Tabasco and Colima soon followed suit. Many others have introduced similar bills. The laws expressly prohibit donations, sales, or supplies of sugary drinks and high-calorie packaged foods such as soda, chips, and candy to children under 18.

These bans were initially part of a strategy to regulate the food and beverage companies’ advertising tactics. But the local congresses acted autonomously to enact a nationwide labeling law that introduced warning symbols for all packaged food and beverages that are high in sugars, calories, salt, and saturated or trans-fat.

The symbols—stark black stop signs with written warnings such as “excess sugar” and “excess sodium”—must be placed on the front of the package where it’s easy to see. These warning signs will make it easier to follow the new laws, helping people to identify what is junk food, and not sell or give it to children.

Click the gallery to see each label in an expanded view.

Momentum for these bans was triggered by the ministry of health’s communication around COVID-19 prevention—including the important role that food plays in promoting health and preventing disease. These messages about the importance of healthy eating and drinking also appeared in the media, which pointed out the health harms of consuming processed foods that are high in sugar, sodium, fat, and empty calories. The undersecretary of health even called soda “bottled poison.”

“With these bans, Mexico is taking a huge step forward in protecting and guaranteeing a child’s right to a healthy future and recovery from the pandemic.”

What is most striking about the junk food bans in these three states is that they were not conceived under the local health laws, but rather within a framework of children’s rights.

This tells us a lot about how the health of a child is viewed in Mexico, specifically related to the consumption of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods. It’s not just a matter of health or disease prevention, but also about the right children have to be in environments that are health promoting and free of unhealthy foods and drinks.

In addition to prohibiting unhealthy products, these initiatives also aim to promote consumption of fresh, natural, traditional and seasonal foods as the first options for children. If implemented successfully, this could not only improve children’s nutrition, but also have a positive economic impact for local producers and traditional cooks.

Young girl smiling while holding a piece of fruit

Now, are these laws perfect? And are they applied perfectly? No.

The reality is that they have encountered quite a lot of push back from food and beverage industries. They also require a lot of political will to be carried out and monitored.

But across the country, there is general consensus that junk food and sugary drinks will not help us move forward from the pandemic.

Ana participated in the December 2019 Salzburg Global Seminar “Halting the Childhood Obesity Epidemic: Identifying Decisive Interventions in Complex Systems,” which was sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of its efforts to learn from abroad to improve health and well-being in the United States.


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Why Drinking Water Quality Matters

In recognition of Water Quality Month and the important role that water plays in helping children grow up healthy, we spoke with Pamela Russo and Jamie Bussel, senior program officers at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who work on water issues.

Can you give us a quick overview of water quality and access here in the US? 

PR: Yes. In a nation as rich as the United States, access to clean, safe running water should be a given. Unfortunately, it’s not. More than 2 million people in America live without running water and basic indoor plumbing. 

On top of that, there are almost 10 million lead service lines in residential properties, schools and child care centers across America. Unfortunately, lead is not the only toxin common in our drinking water systems. PFAS and other toxins harmful to health pollute the drinking water in communities across the nation and impact up to 110 million Americans

While most of us live in places where the tap water is safe to drink, a long legacy of discriminatory policies and structural racism has created inequities in who does and doesn’t have access to safe, affordable water. Among communities of Color, there are consistently greater levels of drinking water health violations. 

In addition to issues of water quality and access, water is often too expensive. Water rates have doubled over the last 20 years.  

Jamie, could you speak to how access to clean and safe drinking water can impact children?

JB: We know that leaded water has the harshest impacts on children, and the EPA acknowledges that there is no known safe level of lead in a child’s blood. Scientists are still understanding the harms that PFAS and other man-made chemicals could cause to children’s health, but some studies have shown these “forever” chemicals affect growth, learning, and behavior in children from infancy through the elementary school years.

Clean, safe, drinking water is essential for healthy child development. When parents and caregivers don’t have access they can rely on, they’re forced to look for alternatives like bottled water, which can get expensive over time and isn’t great for the environment, or sugary drinks like juices and sodas, which can contribute to unhealthy weight gain and poor oral health.

We’ve got to work to comprehensively upgrade our water systems, starting with replacing lead service lines in an equitable manner, so that wherever children spend time, they have access to safe and clean drinking water. 

Why start with lead service line replacements? 

PR: The benefits of replacing our lead service lines are clear. The nonprofit research organization Altarum has created an online calculator that measures the costs of childhood lead exposure and the potential benefits of prevention over their lifetime. The tool breaks down the health costs and number of children exposed on a national and state level.

Is this a problem beyond peoples’ homes? 

JB: Yes, definitely. Healthy Eating Research published a brief in 2019 that showed that only half of states in the U.S. had a policy or program in place to support testing school drinking water for lead. The research team also conducted testing in nearly 11,000 schools in 12 states and 44% of those schools had at least one water sample at or above their state’s action level for lead. 

Many kids spend the majority of their time either at home or at school, so we must ensure they have access to safe, clean drinking water no matter where they are. Voices for Healthy Kids has works with advocates across the country who are working to make sure that every child has access to safe water in schools. In Los Angeles, they worked with InnerCity Struggle, a community-based organization, to empower students in East LA to advocate for improved water quality at their schools. 

What solutions are promising? 

PR: The obvious solution to removing lead from our water is to replace the lead service lines that run from the curb to the front door. The Environmental Policy Innovation Center (EPIC), Environmental Defense Fund, and National Resources Defense Council have all conducted research and analysis on how to equitably replace all lead service lines across the US. And it’s exciting to see that comprehensive repairs to our water systems have been included in recent infrastructure proposals. Repairing our water system will take time and investment and an accountability system for equitable implementation.

JB: While lead service lines are certainly a problem in child care centers and schools, these buildings also have old faucets and plumbing that contain lead and need to be replaced. Some school districts are solving this by replacing water fountains with water filling stations. We need to make sure schools have the resources to improve school water quality too. 

Given that these solutions will take time, how can parents and caregivers find out more information about their tap water and whether or not it’s safe to drink? 

PR: Each year, most water utilities across the country are required to provide consumer confidence reports, also known as water quality reports, to their customers. Depending on your water company, this report could be mailed to you as a hard copy or delivered via email and it’s required to contain important safety information about your water like the amount of lead and other toxins, any violations of water standards by the company, and much more. 

The unfortunate part is that many of the reports are hard to use or inaccessible, especially for people who don’t speak English. EPIC is working to change this. Earlier this year, they conducted a national competition to collect creative and easy ways to redesign water quality reports. They’re now working to implement these ideas and make it so that everyone can quickly understand what’s in their water and whether or not it’s safe to drink. 

While we’ve discussed the prevalence of unsafe drinking water across the country, we also need to point out that many Americans do have safe running water in their homes and schools but don’t trust it thanks to crises like the situation in Flint, Michigan. Nearly 60 million people across the country don’t drink their tap water even though it’s safe. Water quality reports provide an opportunity to build trust between consumers and water utilities. 

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Sugary Drinks Harm Kids’ Health

Sugary drinks are the single largest source of calories in children’s diets and provide nearly half of kids’ added sugar intake. This new special feature highlights the latest data and trends on sugary drink consumption and facts about how sugary drinks impact kids’ health. It summarizes efforts and recommendations for reducing consumption, recent research, and stories of communities taking action.

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Confronting the Challenges of Transforming Public Health

A conversation between RWJF President and CEO Dr. Richard Besser and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack

What have we learned from the pandemic and how can we apply those lessons to advance equity and improve public health in the future?

RWJF president and CEO Dr. Richard Besser spoke with U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack about how critical federal nutrition programs, including SNAP, WIC, school meals and summer feeding initiatives are for improving health equity, addressing hunger, and reducing obesity.

Dr. Besser and Secretary Vilsack talked about USDA’s efforts to assess how increasing the SNAP benefit helped families and the barriers participants confronted in the pandemic. According to USDA’s study, nine out of 10 SNAP participants faced hurdles in providing their families with a healthy diet throughout the month, and 61% say it’s due to the cost of healthy foods. 

Secretary Vilsack spoke about the need to reexamine the Thrifty Food Plan, which helps determine the SNAP benefit level, especially with the pending benefit reduction set for September 2021. He also talked about the need to modernize SNAP, including by supporting online shopping to help families who lack access to transportation to their local grocery stores and encouraged governors to ensure that people who are qualified for the program take full advantage of the benefits. 

Dr. Besser and Secretary Vilsack also discussed the need and opportunities for expanding summer feeding programs, the benefits of universal, free school meals, and how connecting more people to WIC can help address our nation’s maternal health crisis. To learn more, tune into the above video.

This conversation was part of the Future of Health Summit, hosted by the Milken Institute in June 2021.

Learn More About SNAP

Two boys shopping for produce
PRIORITY POLICY

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Learn more about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program,  formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, and how it helps feed approximately 40 million Americans each month. Also, see policy recommendations from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Visit the SNAP Policy Page
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Community story

SNAP Stories

Learn more about the critical support SNAP provides to families and individuals across the country, including firsthand accounts from program participants.

See more stories

Innovative Heroes, Ensuring No Child or Family Goes Hungry During COVID-19

Families gather in long car lines at a Houston distribution site. Photo Credit: Houston Independent School District

The latest data from 2018 show that more than 37 million Americans, including 11 million children, are food insecure, meaning they are not able to afford enough food to support a healthy life. Experts believe that 17.1 million more people could become food insecure due to lost income, job loss and other hardships tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Before the pandemic hit, 51% of all students qualified for free or reduced price school meals. That’s millions of students from families with low income who rely on school meals as a critical source of daily nutrition. So what happens when that source is jeopardized because schools are forced to close due to COVID-19? 

We talked with six school nutrition professionals from the Midwest to the East Coast who showed up strong as first responders when COVID-19 hit. They are advocates for healthy kids and families, rebels with a cause of ensuring no child goes hungry, and incredibly creative problem solvers and innovative partners. 

These are their inspiring stories about the importance and power of healthy school meals.  

Thinking Outside the Box to Feed Kids and Families Citywide
Houston Independent School District – Houston, TX –  200,000 students

On March 15, 2020, Betti Wiggins, nutrition services officer for the Houston Independent School District, got word that the district’s schools needed to close due to COVID-19.

Hear her tell it:

Betti Wiggins shares what March 15 looked like for her school district when COVID-19 first hit.

Since then, Betti has spread her love and passion for feeding not only students in her district, but also kids in 17 additional districts all across Houston, despite having little notice or planning. Using a warehouse the size of four football fields, she and her staff, the Houston Food Bank, other partners and volunteers, packaged thousands of bags of food and transported them in long refrigerated trucks to distribution sites all across the city.  

Volunteers organize food packages at a Houston distribution site and prepare to serve hundreds of families. Photo Credit: Houston Independent School District

Leading, in partnership with the Houston Food Bank, a well-oiled meal distribution operation, Betti was prepared to feed the long car lines of families from across the city of Houston–beyond students in the 17 districts. Her mission was bigger than passing out meals to feed kids:

Betti explains how school meals are critical for addressing hunger and food insecurity.

Her desire was to provide quality, nutritious foods to any person who needed food during the COVID-19 pandemic. Families were already enduring job and childcare loss, health challenges and grieving the deaths of loved ones. Betti saw no reason why hunger should be added to the list, but she faced real barriers in helping her city address food insecurity, barriers she hopes policymakers will recognize and overcome: 

Betti shares with Congressman Al Green the need for more funding to feed more families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meeting the Growing Demand for Food During an Economic Crisis
Omaha Public Schools – Omaha, Nebraska – 53,682 Students

Omaha Public Schools’ Nutrition Services Director Tammy Yarmon describes her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic as “wild.” In the first two weeks, she and her team served over 7,500 meals across 4 sites and delivered meals on Mondays. By summer, they were distributing meals across 40 sites with operations running Monday through Thursday. 

Demand for meals grew exponentially. Tammy explained how creatively her team needed to think at every turn to stock up on supplies like bleach and portion cups, and feed as many people as they could as quickly as they could.

“With kids, parents and caregivers now at home, daily household supplies like toilet paper, paper towels, and soap are used up more quickly. Bills like electricity and water are higher because everyone is at home. The pandemic is hitting family budgets in unexpected ways no matter their economic status.” 

Tammy Yarmon, Nutrition Services Director for Omaha Public Schools

Through the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program and the district’s partnership with the YMCA, Omaha Public Schools families received boxes of fresh produce from the Y at the school district’s distribution sites. Tammy shared that for one family, the only fresh fruits and vegetables they ate during the pandemic came from the boxed meals the district offered. This underscores the critical importance of providing fresh fruits and vegetables as part of school meals programs. 

No deed went unthanked. Tammy recalls kids who made paper airplanes with handwritten thank you notes that they would sail out the window to her volunteer staff. Others would press thank you signs and pictures they drew against the inside of car windows. 

This kind of gratitude is what reminds Tammy of why–despite the struggles and unknowns COVID-19 has brought her program–she loves the career that she has built and the hardworking staff right by her side, pulling together in seemingly impossible times. 

Local Shero Champions Feeding Kids and Educating Families 
Burke County Public Schools – Burke County, Georgia – 4,300 students

When COVID-19 first hit cities across the country and shutdown schools, Director of School Nutrition Programs Donna Martin wasted no time. When the virus spread to the rural area of Burke County, Georgia, she and her team had already devised a plan to feed their district’s kids:

Donna describes how she and her team prepared meals so they could be ready to deliver food to children the day after the shut down was announced.

On March 18, 2020, the morning after the notice aired to shut down the county’s schools, Donna and her staff were on the road serving packed meals at bus stops near kids’ homes. They were even serving kids who attended private schools — an opportunity that garnered interest from parents who were hearing about the healthy food options Donna offered and wanted the same. A duty she was happy to do.  

Donna and her staff in Rosie the Riveter jackets, symbolizing their inspiring work as first responders during the pandemic. Photo Credit: Burke County Public Schools

As a registered dietitian nutritionist, Donna’s passion goes beyond feeding kids. Her mission is to provide kids with nutritious meals and teach them the importance of eating healthy foods. Donna’s powerful meal distribution plan transformed into an opportunity to revitalize children’s interest about what a healthy meal looks like, and in turn, take their findings home and teach their parents. Donna started including flyers with the packed meals that informed families when the next bus full of food would come, and also included recipes to teach families wonderful ways to cook garbanzo beans, sugar snap peas, jicama and other healthy foods they served. 

Keeping Connected and Making the School Meal Experience Fun
Burlington School District – Burlington, Vermont – 3,565 Students

If you would have told Food Service Director Doug Davis that people in Burlington would be waiting in long lines for meals, he would have told you “that you were crazy.” But virtually overnight, that’s exactly what happened as Burlington School District became the city’s “largest restaurant chain,” operating breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. 

Doug worked with district and community partners to make the experience of receiving free, healthy school meals fun for families, hoping to diminish the stigma that so many families felt because they needed help. The district’s technology department handed out devices kids needed for remote learning at the sites, teachers passed out homework and curriculum, the local library distributed books and Wow Toyz donated pallets of toys for kids. Doug loved seeing joy on families’ faces and connecting with students and their parents. He believes connection is a cornerstone of his nutrition program. 

Doug is working to ensure that the pandemic doesn’t make the distribution of school meals more transactional than educational, as kids in his district–and so many others across the country–used to grow their own food in school gardens, visit farms, and take cooking classes during the school year. He worries about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the school nutrition program, that it could diminish kids’ love for eating healthier meals and their understanding of where the food comes from.

“We’ve worked too hard for way too many years to allow the quality of school meals to slide as a result of the pandemic. Eating healthy foods is only one piece of the puzzle. Helping kids develop a love relationship with food, learn its history and understand how it’s grown are the best rewards for our work. These lessons will contribute to future generations having healthy eating habits.”

Doug Davis, Food Service Director for the Burlington School District

Many of the resources children once had that connected them to food may be unavailable for the unforeseeable future as kids aren’t attending school in-person and school district budgets have taken a hit. However, Doug knows this crisis has elevated the importance of healthy school meals–not only in his community but nationwide. And he’s hopeful there will be a more intentional national investment in school meals. 

Connecting With Students and Serving an Entire City
Chicago Public Schools – Chicago, Illinois – 355,000 students

Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) nutrition support services department, in partnership with global food service corporation Aramark, serves meals to more than 355,000 students daily. Once the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools in March 2020, Health Promotion Manager Tarrah DeClemente knew the district had to find a way to ensure all CPS students had access to healthy meals and fast.

The CPS team distributes three days worth of meals at a time for each child in the household, Tarrah began to see the pandemic as an opportunity not only to feed students but also to help them connect with supportive employees during a year rife with social injustice and racial tension. She explains that “school is more than a place to learn, it is a safe space where students have opportunities to debrief about current events, to learn advocacy skills, to talk about emotions, and have supportive adults check in on them. Our incredible staff is not only making sure our students and their families receive nutritious foods but are also checking in with families as they come to distribution sites.” 

Tarrah saw such a high demand and need not only to feed students, but also their families who struggled with food security during the shelter in place mandate. The need extended beyond her own school district:

Tarrah shares her passion for feeding kids and families across Chicago during the pandemic.

With the world in crisis, Chicago Public Schools is thankful for USDA’s relaxed rules that allowed them to feed families in need more easily during the pandemic. They don’t have to take identification or turn families away because they’re at the wrong school or distribution site–they can do right by the city of Chicago at a time when residents need them. 

Fighting the Stigma of Receiving Free Healthy Meals
Montague Area Public Schools and Whitehall District Schools – Michigan – 3,500 students

Dan Gorman leads two school districts’ food service programs in Michigan—Montague Area Public Schools and Whitehall District Schools—where his mission during the COVID-19 pandemic was two-fold: 1) to make meal distribution as easy on families as possible; and 2) to reduce the stigma of receiving them. 

Dan operates from a place of empathy, explaining that too many families are feeling tremendous stress and experiencing trauma of living through the pandemic. 

When his districts’ schools shut down in the spring, he and his team served meals in bulk that could sustain a family for a week, making sure that part of the bulk meal included fruits and vegetables. He explained that it’s hard on families to drive to a food distribution site for one meal at a time, as they are dealing with so many other things during a pandemic, and also those trips cost time and gas money. This is another example of Dan leading with empathy and problem solving in ways that make just one of the impacts of COVID-19 easier on families. 

The USDA’s waivers, which have allowed his district staff to distribute free meals to all families until December 31, 2020, also help. It reduces the stigma that historically has come with needing the school meals programs. Dan hopes that families understand that so many of us simply need a little extra support, particularly right now.

“I am very grateful during these uncertain times that the USDA has allowed us to continue to be a nutritional safety net for our families and students and that we can have food available for them every week from now until the end of December.  I hope the USDA and the legislature have the wisdom to extend these programs for the full school year.”

Dan Gorman, Food Service Director for the Montague Area Public Schools and Whitehall District Schools

Published on October 14, 2020


PRIORITY POLICY

School Meals and Snacks

Many children consume up to half their daily calories at school. Nationwide more than 29 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participate in the School Breakfast Program. 

Learn More about School Meals

Building Community Power to Limit Marketing of Sugary Drinks

Xavier Morales, Ph.D., MRP, executive director of the Praxis Project, is a longtime advocate for community-driven initiatives to improve health, justice, and racial equity. He and his team work to counter the beverage industry’s marketing of sugary drinks to kids. In 2018 alone, companies spent more than $1 billion on advertising sugary drinks. 

“Childhood obesity is a symptom of our policy decisions and disinvestments. We need to address the root causes of children with obesity. That means making sure we have environments that are fully thriving where children have all the necessary nutrition.”

— Xavier Morales, Ph.D., MRP, Executive Director of the Praxis Project

Xavier and his team focus on educating communities of color, immigrant communities and families with low income about the health benefits of drinking water and the dangers of sugary drinks; and then supporting these same communities to lead culturally relevant solutions and policy change to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks. 

In this perspective, Xavier shares his insights on the beverage industry’s practices, and most importantly, how we can proactively address these practices in ways that help communities and their residents thrive. 

On How We Got Here

COVID-19 has highlighted deep structural problems in our country, which Xavier and his team already knew existed and persisted for decades. He urges that now is the time to reprioritize our budgets and resources to tackle the structures and systems that drive health inequity.

“Right now, we are starving our communities of the resources they need to live healthy.”

Xavier believes that the intentional and unintentional disinvestment in neighborhoods over time has been so great that some communities simply don’t have conditions and environments that provide equitable opportunities for all residents to thrive. Take, for example, Flint, Michigan, where years after the clean water crisis, parts of the city still do not have clean tap water. And in areas where the water may be clean, because of the city’s history, people do not trust that it is. This is just one example of many where lack of investment and unjust policies have created huge disparities and put entire populations at risk for poor health. 

As a result, many communities have contaminated water and no safe places for children to play. And for many families, fresh fruits and vegetables are too expensive or not available, while corner stores and fast food restaurants are the only convenient places to buy foods and drinks. This is why chronic health conditions, including obesity, are more prevalent in communities where we have disinvested in healthy policies, practices, and basic resources. 

Childhood obesity is a symptom of our policy decisions and disinvestments. We need to address the root causes of children with obesity. That means making sure we have environments that are fully thriving where children have all the necessary nutrition.

On Who Is Impacted

People of color, undocumented people, working class families, and indigenous communities disproportionately bear the burden of poor policy decisions. Often, these are the same populations and communities that sugary beverage companies strategically target. So if you don’t have clean water, or you don’t like the taste of water because it’s full of sulfur, lead or arsenic, or you don’t trust your water source, what choice do you have?

“We must work at the intersection of health, justice, and racial equity to address complex issues like sugary drink consumption.” 

On How They Are Impacted

Beverage companies are capitalizing on our policy decisions and disinvestments–they are strategically creating and contributing to environments that are harming the health and wellbeing of communities of color, especially children. 

Xavier paints a picture of industry tactics for marketing sugary drinks by describing an iceberg. He explains that we only see the tip of this iceberg, which is direct marketing and advertising. These practices start trickling down until they are nearly below the surface: the languages they advertise in, the theme of advertisements, the celebrities who are selling products. Companies are not selling a product anymore. They’re selling a feeling. They’re selling a lifestyle. 

But are we paying attention to what’s below the tip of the iceberg? It’s much more than ads and marketing. Beverage companies use a surround sound approach. They market in the locations where kids go every day and they target children as young as age 2. The beverage industry lobbies state and local governments, they make charitable donations, secure pouring rights, place their brands in movies and sporting events, and more. Together, these practices drive consumption of sugary drinks and protect the profits companies make from selling these beverages that harm kids’ health. The beverage industry has created a system where their private profits are protected, but the health costs of consuming their products are subsidized.

“Their tactics are so aggressive that they have made sugary drinks ubiquitous and ever present in our children’s lives. These tactics, coupled with the fact that healthier choices like water are deemphasized or pushed towards the back in many under-resourced communities, has deeply, negatively impacted kids’ health.” 

On How We Can Address Sugary Drinks

Community Education 
As the old saying goes, “knowledge is power.” Xavier agrees, explaining that together we can change norms to counter the food and beverage industry’s marketing of unhealthy products in communities of color. It starts with educating communities about the health benefits of drinking water and the dangers linked with sugary drinks. 

For example, in Xavier’s hometown of Berkeley, California, the Multicultural Institute, which is funded by the city’s sugary drink tax revenue program, holds health workshops for children, day laborers, and immigrant communities. Its staff find creative ways to show the benefits of drinking water and teach residents about the dangers of sugary drinks, particularly how they lead to chronic health conditions like Type 2 diabetes. Watch how they do it here. 

From Xavier’s experience, he believes that once people understand the dangers of sugary drinks and how they are being unfairly targeted by the beverage industry, they won’t stand for it. 

Community Power 
Xavier has worked with other advocates and community partners to combat sugary drink consumption by supporting community-led advocacy. He believes that long-term sustainable solutions should be community-centric, so a one-size-fits all approach will not work. For example, just because a sugary drink tax has worked in Berkeley, California, doesn’t mean that same exact approach would work for another city or town. He recommends that residents of the impacted communities should decide how to approach sugary drink consumption and beverage company tactics in their own community. 

Community and equity-focused decision-making power should extend to deliberations about investing soda tax revenues back into the community. Xavier has found that the Berkeley sugary drink tax revenue program, which is overseen by a community board comprising stakeholders and residents, is a great example of the difference a community can make when they have the opportunity to address health priorities. Read more about the program’s impact here.

On the Role of Public Health Professionals and Other Stakeholders

Decreasing sugary drink consumption, particularly in the communities that are unfairly targeted by the beverage industry, is a complex, uphill battle. We need to uplift community voices and community priorities–and recognize them as the agency for change. Xavier shared a few pieces of advice for how we do this: 

  • Uplift community residents as leaders. Community residents, as they see and live with the ravages of preventable chronic disease, are already fighting the beverage industry writ large. They have the trust of their neighbors and can more readily oppose the predatory marketing practices.
  • Identify where and how you are needed. Find out what’s happening already, and figure out how you slot in. You don’t need to be the boss when you’re working with a community.
  • Practice authentic engagement. Don’t simply give residents a seat at the table–actively listen and truly value what is being said. Help create pathways for community-led action. 
  • Support communities to develop and strengthen their advocacy muscle. Many communities use grants to fund projects that address sugary drink consumption. Think about how you can help them sustain these efforts and develop long-term solutions so they can continue to fight the beverage industry after the grant is over. 

“Find those folks who are doing the great work and help them do what they do better, faster, more sustainably, more profoundly, because they need to address their issues in the way that makes sense for them and builds their power, so that tomorrow they can use that power to address other issues.”

On Our Future 

Xavier believes that “our opportunity is going into the areas of the country that have the highest rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other preventable chronic diseases that are directly related to overconsuming sugary drinks, finding groups that are already there doing some kind of health work, helping to strengthen what they’re doing already, and supporting them over time.”

He believes that by building this community power, we can change the effects of historical disinvestment in some communities, and even change the national narrative and policy priorities. 

“Across the country, from Michigan to South Dakota to California’s Central Valley, we need clean water, affordable water, accessible water in our communities that don’t even have these basic needs met. It starts with that. And it continues with prioritizing taking a stand against marketing and business practices that intentionally harm our health.”

Published on October 14, 2020


Priority issue

Sugary Drink Marketing Targets Youth at Greatest Risk for Obesity

Find the latest research on sugary drink marketing, learn how beverage companies target Black and Latinx youth, and see policy strategies for reducing consumption.

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