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A California City's Bold New Fast Food Law

Last week, Davis, California -- with a population near 70,000 residents, including about 5,000 students from UC Davis -- passed a new law that forces fast food workers to do something they've never before been required to do: Ask children if they want something other than soda.

Starting September 1st, workers at the 18 fast food restaurants within the city limits must ask children if they want "milk or water" before they are allowed to offer soda. If workers fail to comply, they may be forced to pay a $500 fine. It's the first law like this in the country, and may offer a glimpse as to the next skirmish in the ongoing sugary beverage wars.

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The initiative was launched last year by the organization First 5 Yolo, a children's health advocacy in Yolo County. Eighteen months ago, the group began scouting for a city that would make the ideal candidate for the law. Quickly, they learned Davis not only offered them the ability to make the largest impact on children's health (West Sacramento was number two on the short-list of possibilities), but Davis was also home to a City Council membership that was willing to hear them out. (The Council ultimately voted unanimously for the bill, 5-0.) The last hurdle was seeing how restaurant owners would feel about this potential law.

"We came up against very little opposition," said Julie Gallelo, the Executive Director of First 5 Yolo. "We asked for their input into how this might impact their restaurant, and held a community meeting, and sent a follow-up letter after we knew it was going to go forward for a vote, and sent out another letter and asked for feedback. We got no response, positive or negative. No outcry of any kind really."

The fact that there was no outspoken reaction was a huge clue into how it was going to be perceived. "In Davis, people aren't shy about saying if they don't like something," Gallelo said. "The fact we didn't hear any negativity from any restaurants, we felt very comfortable that we wouldn't hear it afterward either. And so far we haven't."

Which isn't to say everyone's happy with this new law. For one, folks like the Davis Enterprise's Bob Dunning, doesn't like this new law one bit. As he starts in an op-ed about the bill:

So, the negative reaction isn't coming from the children or the fast food restaurants, as much as the libertarians who aren't happy with regulations of any kind. Beyond that, everyone seems pretty happy with it. "We've been getting emails from all around the country," Gallelo said, "saying thank you Davis for leading the way."

It may be the rest of the country's battle from here on out, however. First 5 Yolo has no plans to continue trying to delve into policy work by pushing this law into other cities. "Our budget is decreasing next year and we're cutting our staff, so we're focusing more on our direct service contracts with our agencies who are providing things like pre-school and oral healthcare," said Gallelo. "So, less time toward policy work in our future, which saddens me greatly."

But if this law proves to work, other organizations will surely take notice and try to pass their own form of the bill in their neck of the woods. And when "want fries with that?" is quickly replaced by "want milk or water with that?" across the rest of the country, you can point to Davis as the start of that revolution.

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