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Should junk food be banned at supermarket checkout? One California city thinks so

Should junk food be banned at supermarket checkout? One California city thinks so

Perris wants to put healthy eating in reach by putting junk food out of reach at the grocery store checkout.

A new law passed unanimously passed by Perris’ City Council earlier this year bans junk food from being sold at supermarket checkout aisles. Instead, no later than 2024, grocers will be limited to selling healthy snacks and drinks near the register.

Perris is the second city in the United States to enact rules on what’s sold at grocery checkouts, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. Berkeley was the first.

Perris officials hope the ordinance encourages healthy habits.

Checkout aisle offerings at Stater Bros. in Perris on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, feature products such as gum, mints and candy. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Customers check out Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, at Stater Bros. in Perris. A new city ordinance aims to promote healthier choices near the cash register. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG

Store manager Steve Astorga showcases the healthy drink options in a checkout aisle at Stater Bros. in Perris on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. A new city ordinance restricts the sale of junk food near the checkout. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Alicia Yanez chooses bags of chips at checkout at Stater Bros. in Perris on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. A new city ordinance restricts the sale of junk food near the checkout. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Alicia Yanez prepares to check out at Stater Bros. in Perris on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023. A new city ordinance restricts the sale of junk food near the checkout. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Customers check out Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, surrounded by goods near the cash register. A new city ordinance restricts the sale of junk food near the checkout. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG

Mario Rodriguez, 2, sits is seen Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, at Stater Bros. in Perris. A new city ordinance restricts the sale of junk food near the checkout. (Photo by Watchara Phomicinda, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

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“This was driven by our community,” Perris Mayor Michael Vargas said. “It’s not a mayor’s thing, it’s not a council thing.”

But the head of San Bernardino-based Stater Bros. and the California Grocers Association — an industry lobbying group — say the law is unfair, especially because it exempts convenience stores and other junk food retailers.

“Why don’t you let the people in the food business help you and show you better ways to accomplish what you want as opposed to a city council who’s not in the food business, they’re not in the health business, mandating and dictating things they know nothing about?” said Pete Van Helden, Stater Bros.’ CEO and board chairman.

Concerned about what other rules the city might impose, Stater Bros., which has one supermarket in Perris, shelved plans to spend $20 million on a second Perris location, Van Helden said.

“Today is (about) health. I get it. We could say that’s not a big deal. We could move on,” Van Helden said. “But what’s next? What other items in the store are they unhappy with us selling that they will tell us that we can’t sell and Wal-Mart can?

“… I’ve got five other cities begging us to come with a store and none of them are telling us how to merchandise our stores. We’d much rather go there.”

Ronald Fong, California Grocers Association CEO, said via email: “It’s saddening the City of Perris risks losing out on a healthy shopping destination and community anchor due to the fact city leaders failed to collaborate with its grocery community and offer equal and fair treatment to all retailers.”

Vargas said the second Stater Bros. supermarket is part of a larger development that’s never been formally submitted to the city.

“That shopping center has been sitting there (for 15 or 20 years) and it’s just dirt,” he said.

Home to about 80,000 people, Perris is younger, more diverse and poorer than the rest of Riverside County. The city’s median age is 30.3, compared to 36.6 countywide and it’s 79% Hispanic compared to 52% for the county as a whole and its median income is $22,303 compared to $33,609 for the county, according to census data.

Like much of Riverside County, Perris grapples with poor public health indicators. One in 10 Perris adults is diabetic, about one in four is sedentary and almost four in 10 are obese, county public health numbers show.

Research indicates that changing where food is sold in supermarkets “makes healthier choices easier for consumers and leads to consumers purchasing more healthy foods,” said Karen Gardner, senior policy associate with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which worked with California-based Public Health Advocates to help Perris officials write their ordinance.

“It’s not that shoppers can’t make healthy choices in the grocery store,” Gardner said. “But we’re often being pushed towards unhealthy options … The biggest (food companies) in the game spend billions of dollars to place their products in the most prominent places in the grocery store.”

She added: “That maximizes their profitability. It also influences our purchases. So when highly marketed products have lots of sugar and lots of sodium, it can sabotage our efforts to eat healthier.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Vargas said the city council passed an ordinance requiring water to be the default drink for kids’ meals in fast food restaurants. The supermarket checkout ordinance, the mayor said, fits with the city’s “Live Well Perris!” initiative that encourages residents to live healthy lifestyles.

“We just wanted to start promoting more healthier options and the parents were behind it. The schools were behind it,” Vargas said, adding that Public Health Advocates approached the city about the ordinance in 2020.

Perris Mayor Michael Vargas says the city’s new ordinance limiting what foods and drinks supermarkets can sell near the cash register is community driven. “We just wanted to start promoting more healthier options and the parents were behind it. The schools were behind it,” he said. (File photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG) 

First passed in February 2023, Perris’ ordinance forbids grocery stores of at least 2,500 square feet in size from selling snacks or drinks that are more than 200 calories per package, contain trans fats, derive more than 35% of their calories from total sugars or have more than 200 milligrams of sodium.

Nuts, seeds and legumes are exempt from the ordinance, which forbids junk food from being sold within 6 feet of a cash register. The distance requirement helps, Van Helden said, because “our refrigerated beverage coolers that sold the majority of the items that were going to be eliminated are just beyond 6 feet” from the register.

The ordinance also doesn’t prevent sugary, high-calorie and salty snacks and drinks from being sold elsewhere in a supermarket.

The ordinance applies to 15 stores in Perris, according to a city report. They include Stater Bros., Cardenas Markets, Food 4 Less, Aldi, WinCo Foods, Wal-Mart Supercenter and two Dollar Generals.

Cardenas experimented with offering healthy food at checkout lanes in 2016. Spokesperson Marisa Kutansky couldn’t determine Friday afternoon, Sept. 1, whether the Ontario-based grocer still has those types of checkout aisles.

“While we support the Perris elected officials who are seeking healthier lifestyles for their residents, we also strongly support the ability to choose what to merchandise in a manner that reflects their residents/our customers’ product preferences,” Kutansky said via email.

“Further, we urge Perris elected officials to advocate for healthy lifestyle initiatives in a fair and equitable way.  The fact that the (ordinance)  only applies to full-service grocery stores sends mixed messages to consumers and ultimately discriminates against grocers.”

After getting feedback from the grocers association, Perris officials recommended changes to the ordinance, including giving grocery stores until Jan. 1 to comply and allowing a maximum 20-ounce size for fruit and vegetable juices. The city council gave preliminary approval to those changes Tuesday, Aug. 29.

Van Helden said the changes are an improvement, adding that Stater Bros. would have been forced to lay off an employee due to the original ordinance’s costs. But he said it’s not fair, and contrary to the ordinance’s goals, to apply the rules to grocery stores and not convenience stores or mini-markets.

“It’s one thing to have to deal with an ordinance,” Van Helden said. “It’s another thing to deal with it when your competition doesn’t have to. And if they think for a moment that these other stores are not our competitor, they’re wrong.”

Stater Bros. CEO Pete Van Helden says a Perris ordinance limiting what foods and drinks can be sold near a supermarket cash register is unfair to large-scale grocers and the wrong way to get children to eat healthier. (File photo by Alex Gallardo, Contributing Photographer) 

Gardner said U.S. Department of Agriculture research shows two-thirds of Americans’ calories are bought at grocery stores.

“To have the greatest potential public health impact, grocery stores and superstores are the most important place for policies to be focused,” she said.

Van Helden said the best place to teach children healthy habits “is probably not while they’re standing in line at the grocery store.”

To that end, Stater Bros. Charities supports California’s “Taste & Teach” program for schoolchildren to learn about healthy foods. Taste & Teach gives teachers $100 Stater Bros. gift cards to buy California-grown produce and curriculum to teach children about healthy eating, said Nancy Negrette, Stater Bros. vice president of corporate affairs.

“It’s a way of changing behavior through education … instead of just things being taken away at the checkout,” Negrette said.

Since 2018, Stater Bros. Charities has invested over $230,000 in Taste & Teach, reaching more than 200,000 students, Negrette said, adding that the program is offered at five schools within 10 miles of the Perris Stater Bros.

Van Helden said Stater Bros. is taking a wait-and-see approach to the ordinance.

“I’d be interested to see what they’re going to do between now and the 1st,” Van Helden said. “When the 1st comes around, we’ll just have to look at our options.”

Gardner said her organization has heard from “folks across the country,” including Northern California, about implementing their own checkout rules.

“(Perris’) city staff really did amazing work in both hearing from the community and the community members (said) ‘We want healthier options (at) checkout. We want a significant change in the checkout aisles in our grocery stores,’” Gardner said.