Q & A with the Oakland Food Policy Council on the Oakland Soda Tax

If you live in Oakland like me chances are you’ve been getting a mailbox full of flyers telling you to vote no on Measure HH, the “grocery tax.” But guess what? There is no grocery tax, and when you head to the polls what you’ll find on the ballot is the Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax, Oakland’s soda tax.

I spoke with Shaniece Alexander, Council Director of the Oakland Food Policy Council to clear up some questions about the measure and talk about some of Oakland’s food inequity challenges. OFPC works to establish an equitable and sustainable food system by challenging the existing wealth and power paradigms that have led to an unjust food system. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What is the soda tax and why is the Oakland Food Policy Council supporting it?

The tax is a one cent tax per ounce per added sugar sweetened beverage. Not juices with natural sugar, but soft drinks and sports drinks that have added sugar. The tax is on the distributor. People are concerned that that tax is going to be passed to the consumer, and the research on Berkeley’s soda tax does show that there’s been an increase in cost in soda, which has concurrently decreased the consumption of soda. It’s helped so that as people are buying sodas we’re paying for the negative health impacts of the consumption.

In no way are we are saying that you shouldn’t drink coca cola or soda, but you do need to understand the health connections to it and that some money needs to go to fixing the problems that are caused by it.

I’ve been getting tons of flyers telling me to vote no on Measure HH, who’s behind them?

The American Beverage Association is in opposition of the measure and they’ve spent several million dollars on these ads. What they’re selling is blatant lies to our communities, more so to communities of color. I live in East Oakland, and I get an average of four flyers every week for the last three weeks. The fact that they’re selling this as a grocery tax has come with a lot of push back: it’s not actually a grocery tax. [Learn about a recent lawsuit here.]

They’re targeting specific communities, particularly Black and Latino youth. We know that in general Black and Latino youth are exposed to ads for soda several times more than white counterparts. We know that among Black and Latino youth, one in two will develop Type 2 diabetes because of how much sugar people are consuming. The ads and placement is very strategic.

All the businesses being featured in the “No on HH” ads are small businesses owned by people of color, and I think there’s a tendency to direct blame at those business (or schools and school athletic teams) for endorsing soda companies, but can you talk about some of the systematic issues that make these businesses economically vulnerable to participate in a campaign like this?

The Bay Area right now is one of the most expensive places to run a business. If I’m a small business owner and I’m struggling to keep my business open because the rent is completely ridiculous, if someone comes along to offer me a sum I’m going to think about self-preservation and take it. We have a lot of businesses in Oakland closing after 30 or 40 years in business and if their business is displaced then those residents become displaced.

There may just be lack of knowledge around what the tax actually is too, and that means there’s a space for communication and dialogue. If we look around our neighborhoods and school systems we see how much money and ads are being put in by soda companies and it becomes very clear that it is a systemic push, and that’s a space for dialogue and to take a step back and say, why are there 45 Pepsi signs at this high school? It’s about being more aware, talking to our young people, pushing for drinking water and really starting to talk about what’s happening within our communities that is leading to health issues.

What are some of the most urgent food inequity or access issues for Oakland right now?

Food access for me is probably the most political issue out of all of the issues, it overlaps with everything so we can approach it in so many different ways. There is power in food, being in control of where your food comes from is one of the biggest barriers that we have to self-determination. If the city is telling me I can’t grow or get food in a certain place and then that I can’t share it or economically sustain myself from it, there are barriers that need to be broken down.

I live right on the border of San Leandro, and I do most of my grocery shopping in San Leandro because there are not grocery options where I live, and there are delivery businesses that won’t even come here. If we think about the implications of that it’s completely unfair.

People also need to be able to grow food and share food for economic development. If we think about Josephine being shut down, that’s an example of a cultural practice that supplemented income but also provided community building and a safe space. There’s a cultural aspect of being able to share food in your community— for Oakland not to support that, that’s frustrating. You need to respect the way people have been surviving for generations. Josephine has sought out other cities that are more progressive, but we want to be able to support that practice here in Oakland and figure out how to break down the barriers to creating safe spaces and creating ways for people to support themselves.

What are some of the current or upcoming projects on your agenda?

We’re working with the City Planning department to push forward a new mobile food ordinance to support low income entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color who are providing healthy food access to our neighbourhoods.

We’re also pushing for Oakland Unified to take on the good food purchasing policy. School lunches are probably the worst food that we could be feeding our youth, we want to move towards feeding our young people quality food that gives them energy to be successful.

The Oakland Food Policy Council is a volunteer council and holds meetings open to the public the third Thursday of the month.

More information on the Soda Tax from the East Bay Express here. Yes on HH info here.