WASHINGTON — Pop into any number of taquerias, cafes and restaurants in Maryland’s Langley Park neighborhood, and you may notice something missing while you peruse the menu: a glass of ice-cold water.
“Usually, when you go to restaurants, they don’t serve you water when you sit down, here in Langley Park,” said Uri Colon-Ramos, an assistant professor in George Washington University’s Department of Global Health.
“You have to ask for it, and when you do, they bring you bottled water, and it’s $3 or higher.”
Colon-Ramos explains that in the predominantly Latino community, some residents and business owners don’t trust the area’s water quality. Others think tap water has a funny taste.
Whatever the reason, one thing is for sure: the slight of the tap is perpetuating an unhealthy trend. Rather than shelling out the money for a bottle of water, most customers opt for a horchata, tamarindo or soft drink — “something that actually tastes like something, and is a little bit cheaper,” Colon-Ramos added.
“And sugar drinks are the one factor in the diet that’s a strong contributor to childhood obesity and also to diabetes.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hispanic people are 50 percent more likely to die from diabetes than non-Hispanic whites; and 77 percent of Latino adults and 38.9 percent of Latino children ages 2 to 19 are overweight or obese.
Moreover, Ramos says sugar-sweetened drinks are marketed more to Latinos than any other racial or ethnic group.
But this summer, a team of public health professionals are hoping to reverse these less-than-sweet statistics with a new program, Water Up!, which takes the spotlight off sugary beverages and puts it back on water.
Through Oct. 31, five different eateries in Langley Park, ranging from fast-casual concepts to sit-down restaurants, are offering special-priced combo meals that include a free bottle of water. Colon-Ramos says the goal is to promote healthier habits and to create more of a demand for water.
“In this region, we know that Latino youth, for example, more than 30 percent are consuming a sugary drink a day,” Colon-Ramos said.
“Forget weight gain; [sugary drinks] are associated with a number of other cardio-metabolic risks that even if you don’t gain weight, it’s affecting your health.”
She’s hoping the appeal of saving a few dollars on the specials will save a few lives down the road.
Don Ciro Castro, owner of the Salvadoran restaurant Puente de Oro, joined Water Up! because he viewed it as a good marketing move. His special combo has been advertised throughout Langley Park in the paper, on the radio and on social media.
Castro says at the same time, he wants to see his community get healthy.
“We have [to get accustomed] to it, and then it’s going to become natural for everybody to drink water,” he said.
At his restaurant, Castro is offering customers a large plate of pollo a la brasa, beans, rice and salad, plus a bottle of water for $10. For $6, diners at Rico’s Ice Cream can get a chicken, mozzarella and arugula crepe, plus a bottle of water. And El Amate Restaurant is featuring a plate of salmon with rice, beans and vegetables, plus a bottle of water for $14.
Water Up! launched July 1 and runs through Oct. 31. Colon-Ramos says researchers are collecting sales data weekly. She hopes the results will encourage business owners to consider all the benefits of promoting water, including the bottom line.
“We want to be able to attract other restaurants by showing them that this is a good decision for them too,” she said. “And we hope to see, eventually, how this contributes to an impact in diabetes prevention.”