Berkeley bans junk food at grocery checkout aisle, first in the nation to do so

Six years ago, the city of Berkeley was the first in the nation to pass a tax on sodas and sugary drinks.

Now, officials are taking aim at the junk food that surrounds you at the grocery checkout counter.

Come next March, Berkeley residents will no longer be tempted by chips, candy or soda while waiting to pay for their groceries. The Berkeley City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Tuesday that removes junk food and encourages grocery stores to replace it with healthier options.

"You would see protein bars instead of candy bars, you would see fruit, healthier chips," said Councilmember Kate Harrison, who co-authored the bill. "Minute Maid orange juice, which is made by Coca-Cola, would be there instead of the Coca-Cola."

Health advocates said it is a big win, not just for those trying to reduce community obesity and diabetes, but also for parents with kids enticed by eye level candy displays.

Harrison believes it makes good economic sense too, as healthy items are often more profitable. She said the store makes the same amount from one apple as they do from four bags of Doritos.

"It’s also good behavioral science. It’s a nudge, not a requirement," she said. "If you really want that Snickers bar, you can go further back in the store and buy it. We’re not saying you can’t have it, we’re saying it shouldn’t be pushed on you."

The checkout aisle is prime real estate, as food companies spend tens of billions of dollars annually on promotion and visibility to ensure more customers see their products.

The ordinance applies to stores 2,500 square feet or larger, of which there are about 25 in Berkeley.

It’s not the first time Berkeley has led the way in unconventional ideas that then go mainstream.

"We were the first city to start curbside recycling and the first to ban smoking in bars and the first to the soda tax," said Harrison. "And these ideas have all become well-received in other cities as well, so I’m looking forward to this spreading."

While the ordinance takes effect next March, enforcement won't begin until January 2022.