LANGLEY PARK, MARYLAND - The luncheon special has brought a crowd into El Puente de Oro, a Salvadoran restaurant in Langley Park, Maryland. Owner and chef, Ciro Castro, has put together a meal with a large plate of chicken, beans and rice, salad, and a bottle of water.
“The plate that costs $10, for them costs only $5,” he says.
The meal deal is not only saving his customers money, it's encouraging them do what they usually don't - drink water.
“When they are over here eating, they ask for juice or soda, or any other stuff - no water,” Castro says. “I ask the waiters to offer water, even if they have a beer or any other soda or other drink, they can sometimes get a sip of water.”
Castro is pleased to be part of a positive change in his customers’ eating habits.
El Puente de Oro is one of five restaurants in this largely Latino suburb that joined a pilot program called the Water Up Project. Its goal is to get the community to drink more water and reduce their consumption of sugary beverages.
Neighbors and Friends
The campaign depends on volunteers, like local leader Brenda Barrios, who's been explaining the program to neighbors and restaurant owners.
“It’s not like convincing (the business’ owners), it’s more like informing,” she explains. "It’s more like, you know why we need to change these menus. Can you, please help your families because at the end we are a big family, a big Latino family. We want to be healthy.”
Cindy Aguiler is one of her neighbors who have become supporters of the campaign.
“I like the idea and very excited about the Water Up Project because it promotes water. One of the simple, healthy and cheap things is water.”
She’s now drinking more water, and helping her five children develop this healthy habit by not buying soda drinks at home. “I buy juices. It’s maybe on the weekends, but try to make them drink a lot of water.”
Make it Visible, Make it Accessible
Uri Colon-Ramos, assistant professor of global heath at Milken Institute of Public Health in George Washington University, is co-principal investigator of the Water Up Project.
She says the question was how to promote drinking water instead of sugary drinks, and getting restaurants involved was a first step.
“One of the things we noticed right away that you go to these businesses, to the restaurants and you sit down and they don’t offer you water to drink,” she says. “You go here in DC and elsewhere, you sit down and this is the first thing they bring you, or there is a place where you can just grab water for free. That’s a big barrier because people would come thirsty, they would say, well give me a beer or horchata or tamarind or something really sugary. And they don’t drink water because they don’t have access there, and even if they ask for water, they would bring you a bottle of water that costs more than sugary drinks.”
And, she says, ads target Latinos encouraging them to consume more sugary drinks. “Also in their home countries, they are targeted as well, and the globalization is very real. They’re used to drinking or seeing the promotion of soft drinks as well. They come here to the U.S. and they have more access to these drinks.”
The commercials downplay the serious health risks linked to sugary drinks.
“Sugary drinks are the number one risk factor for diabetes that we don’t need to have in in our diet,” the researcher explains. “There is no reason why we need the calories that are coming from sugary drinks. At least other foods provide other kinds of nutrients. These are nutrient poor type of food that contributes nothing but calories. And those calories come all in the form of sugar.”
The four-month long Water Up project started a few months ago, and researchers are now evaluating the results and feedback, hoping to make it more impactful and expand it to more neighborhoods. They hope this pilot project will inspire other communities around the United States and the world to think about what they drink and choose more water.