City of Berkeley Bans Junk Food from Checkout Aisle

Candy, chips, and sugary drinks will be replaced with healthier options.

candy rack at checkout
Candy rack at checkout.

Leon Neal / Getty Images

The city of Berkeley, California, passed a groundbreaking ordinance this month that will ban junk food from being displayed in the checkout aisles of large supermarkets. This part of the grocery store is notoriously difficult for people to navigate, whether they're tired parents with demanding children, or adults trying to reduce their exposure to tempting sugary and salty treats. But starting in March 2021, checkout aisles in Berkeley will no longer feel like a battle zone.

The ordinance will apply to stores larger than 2,500 square feet and includes major chains like Trader Joe's and Safeway. All foods displayed in the checkout aisle must have no more than 250 milligrams of sodium per serving or 5 grams of added sugars. Beverages can have no added sugars. This means that the slew of gum, chocolate, candy, and chips that currently occupies the checkout aisle will shift to include more nuts, fruit, vegetables, seeds, legumes, dairy, whole grains, and any chewing gum or mints without added sugars.

A recent poll of community members in Berkeley found that half of shoppers experience some level of stress at making healthy choices in the checkout aisle. They're not wrong; a press release from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found that "69 percent of beverages and 81 percent of foods available at checkout are high in sugar or salt."

The idea for the ordinance came from a community task force created in 2017 that initially conducted a successful grassroots campaign to tax sugary beverages in the area. Next, aided by a grant from Healthy Berkeley, a youth advocacy team took this even further, mobilizing the community through surveys and gatherings to implement this next level of policy – the checkout ban. CSPI cites Monique Blodgett, a mother who lives in Berkeley:

"Many parents of color in Berkeley are worried because they are seeing a rise in diabetes in the community and they fear for their children’s live. I believe healthy checkout lanes would make a huge difference for Berkeley families and help people gain more confidence shopping. It would also demonstrate that their community cares about them and their health."

It will certainly affect the stores' business models. Checkout aisles are considered prime real estate by food manufacturers because that's where everyone has to go, no matter what they're buying. CSPI writes, "Food manufacturers spend $50 billion each year on trade promotion to ensure their products occupy highly visible store spaces." The new ordinance will restrict this, limiting what brands can advertise, but also opening the door to healthier alternatives that may not have had a chance at occupying that space in the past.

Opinions are mixed as to how effective this change will be. One skeptic told ABC News that it gives people "a false sense of accomplishment" that would be better replaced with community education and school-based dietary training: "That stuff matters more than rearranging groceries at the checkout stand."

On the other hand, with so many Americans dealing with chronic disease and obesity, we need all the help we can get. People respond positively to creative "nudges," as research has shown in the past, and this is no different. It may not be a complete solution, but it's low-hanging fruit; and if it means less sugar and sodium overall entering people's carts and bodies, then it can be deemed a success. 

Although the ordinance takes effect in March 2021, it will not be enforced until January 2022, giving everyone time to adjust.