A beverage tour's turn into discussion on obesity, choice and bottom lines
Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez recently conducted a tour within his district to speak with constituents and small business owners on the Mayor's proposed soda ban.
Story and photos by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer
Another day, another tour.
Elliot Hoff, spokesman for New Yorkers for Beverage Choice, has been on eight of them so far.
He finds the "impact tours" invigorating, while he acknowledges that Mayor Bloomberg's controversial soda ban will likely be approved by the Board of Health.
Going on the impact tours has had its benefits, however.
"It's interesting for me as a New Yorker to see the full diversity of the city," said Hoff. "Being born and Brooklyn and growing up in Queens, [it turns out] I haven't seen everything."
This most recent impact tour on Thurs., Aug. brought him to Washington Heights as lobbyists and members of the coalition of New Yorkers for Beverage Choice met up with New York City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez.
Residents along St. Nicholas Avenue eagerly greeted Councilmember Rodriguez as he asked them their thoughts on the ban.
Jose Varientos, a taxi driver, favored it.
"It's excessive that one child has a huge drink," said Varientos, who also questioned the priority given beverage sizes. "The mayor must have more important things in the city to worry about."
The tour stopped at La Sirena at 182nd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue.
There, Hoff estimated that 80 percent of the restaurant's refrigerated drinks would have to be replaced with smaller sizes.
"It's not fair that we have to start all over again," lamented Santiago, the owner.
Isidro Medina, a customer, opined that the ban challenged freedom of expression.
"People can make up their own minds and the Mayor should not get involved in their personal affairs," he said before adding that the absence of large sodas would not prevent him from patronizing La Sirena in the future.
Councilmember Rodriguez was not one of the 14 members of the New York City Council that signed a letter to the mayor expressing opposition to the ban, but he does believe that businesses, members of the community and elected officials should have a say in the matter.
"The Council should be part of this decision. We should have the opportunity to meet with our constituents, have our town hall meetings, and bring to the council the voice of our community—something that is not happening right now," he said. "I hope the mayor reconsiders how he's addressing this issue."
One stop on the tour, a Dunkin' Donuts on the corner of 178th Street and Broadway, briefly became the site of an impromptu forum discussing the obesity crisis.
Several theories were tossed about.
Mark Tumminello, the director of operations for 13 area Burger King and Dunkin' Donuts locations, believes high fructose corn syrup, used to sweeten many beverages, is the culprit.
"Prior to the 1970's, they used pure cane sugar, so if you go back to the cane sugar you won't have this high-calorie, non-nutritious sugar in these drinks," he said.
Also introduced in the 1970's were 2-liter sodas.
Councilman Rodriguez argued that more nutrition education is key to solving the problem.
"Let's provide New Yorkers with the educational tools and let them be the ones to make the decision," he proffered.
The idea seemed to resonate with Antony, a Dunkin' Donuts customer who had been observing the discussions over a small cup of coffee.
"I kept reading about all the sugar I was ingesting so I decided to drink less soda," he said. Antony also observed that calorie counts in menus have led to healthier choices.
Tumminello's bottom line will be affected whether soda consumption is reduced by regulating sizes or educating the public.
He estimated that more than 30 percent of the chains' profits come from the sale of fried and sodas, emphasizing the fast food industry's dependency on starch and sugar.
"We can't [even] turn profitability on sandwiches anymore," said Tumminello, "because food costs are so expensive."