The COVID-19 pandemic confirmed a difficult lesson — though one that was not terribly surprising to many of us — that optimal nutrition is critical to keeping communities across the United States healthy in the fight against the virus. With the effects of the pandemic threatening the food security of thousands of American households, we are watching in real time as diminishing access to nutrition is worsening health outcomes.
It is critical that corporations, community organizations and public health groups work together to support and strengthen the health of individuals across the country by improving access to better-for-you foods and helping families reduce the sugar they get from beverages. And it is essential that we accelerate our collective efforts in communities that are in greatest need of support.
Change begins with leaders who are serving on the front lines to help people meet their basic needs, especially in communities where health inequities make the challenge even greater. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation is working with these leaders to provide their community members with guidance and resources that support their physical as well as social-emotional health. Member companies of the American Beverage Association have been supporting the work of local groups who are making sure people have access to nutritious meals.
One such organization on the front lines is Barrio Action Youth & Family Center, a nonprofit organization based in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles that has long been committed to nutrition education. With beverage industry support, Barrio’s network of ambassadors are connecting with people to provide trainings and presentations that help their community stay informed about proper nutrition. Barrio Action helps families take advantage of classes in safe settings such as virtual meetings that help them succeed.
In the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, The Campaign Against Hunger launched more than 20 years ago as a small food pantry operating out of a church basement. Today it is the largest pantry in Brooklyn, providing the basics of well-balanced meals to more than 30,000 individuals from underserved communities every month – a number that has increased dramatically this year due to COVID-19. The staff combat food insecurity by stocking their pantry with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and other items that people can select just as they would in a traditional supermarket. The beverage industry has helped the Campaign Against Hunger expand its educational offerings under its “Healthy Families, Healthy Communities” program, which takes participants through a core curriculum of reading food and beverage nutrition labels, budgeting, planning meals and gardening.
These partnerships are a critical component of the Beverage Calories Initiative, a joint effort of the nonprofit Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the American Beverage Association, The Coca-Cola Company, Keurig Dr Pepper and PepsiCo to reduce sugar in the family diet. This initiative has national reach and is being adopted in communities across the country that are experiencing the greatest challenges to food access.
The latest results of this collaboration, recently released in two independent reports, show that this approach to reducing sugar and calories from beverages is yielding promising results. Keybridge LLC, a third-party evaluator, reports that average beverage calorie consumption decreased nationally by 5.6 percent over the first five years of the initiative.
Declines have also been observed in communities with significant health disparities where we are measuring progress. In five such communities, consumption of sugar from beverages has declined for at least three years in a row, with reductions of up to 18.4 percent compared the initial year of the program.
These reductions occurred as two-thirds of all new beverage brands introduced in 2018 were either no-, low- or mid-calorie options. Today, roughly 55 percent of all beverages purchased contain zero sugar. This is a significant shift in the marketplace.
We believe the key to this success is the collaboration between beverage companies, public health groups and community organizations coming together to leverage their strengths and expertise. Though there is still more work to be done, it is clear that cross-sector partnerships such as this initiative are having a meaningful impact.
We are at a pivotal moment as a society. These times call on us to look closely at how we work together to ensure current and future generations thrive. We welcome support and partnership with others in our efforts, especially at a time when so many in our country are suffering. United, we can meet any challenge. We look forward to continuing this work in service of a society that supports the health of all.
Katherine Lugar is the president and CEO of the American Beverage Association. Kathy Higgins is the chief executive officer of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.
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