Better Beverage volunteers

Avi Rhodes, 7, of Columbia, wears his Better Beverage sunglasses. His mom, Cindy Myles, joked that she is "the meanest" because she doesn't keep soda in the house. (Staff photo by Amanda Yeager / August 7, 2013)

On a recent Wednesday afternoon at Swansfield Pool in Columbia, patrons couldn't miss the blue tent, yellow tablecloth and lime green T-shirts of the Better Beverage Buddies street team.

Kids, some shy and others curious, approached the table stacked with Frisbees, inflatable beach balls and sunglasses to see what it was all about.

The giveaways might draw attention, but another freebie is at the heart of the Better Beverage mission. Volunteers gave away water, iced tea and club soda to educate Howard County citizens about healthier drink options.

The street teams are part of a broader initiative called Howard County Unsweetened, launched in December by the Horizon Foundation, a local nonprofit committed to improving health and wellness.


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The foundation's president, Nikki Highsmith Vernick, said the program's goals are to raise awareness of childhood obesity in the county and to change the environment that often facilitates making unhealthy choices.

"It made a lot of sense to us to tackle the biggest public health problem in the county, which is obesity," she said. "Sugary, sweetened drinks are the largest source of added sugar in children's diets."

In Howard County, one in four children are overweight or obese. For adults, that number more than doubles, to 56 percent.

"We're trying to change the environment wherever kids live, learn, play or pray," said Highsmith Vernick.

The foundation has reached out to the school system, county government, childcare centers and pediatricians' offices to spread the word about healthier choices, such as replacing sodas with less sugary drinks in vending machines.

Horizon has created a website, BetterBeverageFinder.org, that sorts healthy drinks based on a broad range of categories. Visitors to the site can search by type of beverage, caffeinated or non-caffeinated, and type of artificial sweetener (or lack thereof).

The database then provides a list of drinks that meet the search criteria, with nutritional information and locations of stores that sell the product.

The street team was designed to get the word out. Since its kick-off July 4, volunteers have taken the healthy-beverage message to pools, parades and sports events around the county, and they plan to continue for the next few weeks.

Volunteer Talmesha Richards, a Johns Hopkins University Medical School graduate, said she's seen a great response from kids, who particularly seem to like the sunglasses.

"When it's bright and sunny outside, everyone in the pool has on the sunglasses," she said. "And then when it's time for them to come out, they get drinks."

Parents at Swansfield pool said the program sounded promising.

"I think it's awesome because I'm trying to find drinks that my kids will actually drink that don't have as much sugar and calories, and I can't find anything yet," said Pam Watson, who brought her five children down from Westminster to visit the pool with a friend.

"It's definitely something that's concerning to me because they like sodas and they're not allowed to have them a lot ... it's just too much sugar in their bodies. And right now their bodies don't gain weight, but eventually they're going to get to the age where they do," she added.

Cindy Myles, of Columbia, joked that she was "the meanest mom" because she didn't keep soda in the house. Instead, she said, she serves milk and water, and tells her kids that "soda is a treat."

Fatima Chere, of Columbia, said soda is banned in her house, too.

"You can do everything you're doing to follow a right diet, but if you don't follow it with what you drink you won't see any difference," she said.

When her two children, Sara, 8, and T.J., 6, asked if they could get a drink from the booth, she said, "Go ahead!"