Berkeley becomes 1st city to ban junk food at grocery store checkouts

Ronnie Koenig

Residents in Berkeley, California are going to see a big change when they go grocery shopping next year.

Beginning in March 2021, candy, chips, soda and other junk food items will not be available for purchase at store checkouts. The Berkeley City Council passed an ordinance on Sept. 22 that will ban these products from the aisles right by store registers.

Often referred to as impulse buys, the snacks and treats will be replaced with healthier options in retailers that occupy spaces that are each larger than 2,500 square feet. This applies to grocery stores like Safeway, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Monterey Market and the popular Berkeley Bowl.

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The Berkeley Bowl already emphasizes bountiful fruits and vegetables on their store's Instagram.

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The Healthy Checkout Ordinance, which is the first of its kind in the U.S., will ban food items with five or more grams of added sugars and 200 milligrams or more of sodium, chewing gum and mints with added sugars and beverages with added sugars or artificial sweeteners. The ordinance passed unanimously at the Council's meeting and was sponsored by Councilmembers Kate Harrison and Sophie Hahn.

While the ordinance will only apply to 25 stores in the city, that also includes drugstore chains like CVS and Walgreens. Under the new policy, customers will still be able to buy the sweet and salty treats they desire — they'll just need to go looking for them throughout the store, versus picking them up as they're checking out. Corner stores and small delis will not be held to the ordinance, which goes into effect March 1, 2021 and will be actively enforced by health inspectors starting January 1, 2022.

So while you might be used to tossing a candy bar into your cart as you checkout at the register, at least at the Berkeley Trader Joe's, you'll have to go looking for that chocolate fix at another store aisle instead. Candies like their organic almond beverage chocolate bar, have 10 grams of added sugars and doesn't qualify as a food item that can be displayed at checkout areas.

Some of the food items that are allowed at checkout areas under the ordinance include drinks with no added sugars like LaCroix sparkling waters and Pure Leaf unsweetened black tea and snacks with no more than 5 grams of added sugars like Sabra hummus and Smartfood white cheddar popcorn.

According to Berkeleyside, Ayanna Davis, director of programs at Healthy Black Families, spoke during the public comment period of the council's meeting and said that as a mother of seven, she is accustomed to dealing with what she calls "predator marketing" at checkout counters in stores. Davis believes this type of marketing targets communities of color and cited a city equity report on disproportionately high rates of diabetes and heart disease in Berkeley’s Black community.

Related: Black RDs weigh in on how we talk about healthy eating — and what needs to change in the world of nutrition.

Not all Berkeley residents agreed with the new policy. NBC's Bay Area affiliate KNTV reported that at least some people thought the city should focus on more pressing concerns than what people put in their mouths.

“I’m a diabetic Type 2,” A.J. Curtis told KNTV. But he says other issues, like Berkeley’s homeless crisis, are more important than what people are buying. “I feel like they should be focusing more on that than on the food we eat,” he said.