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Five Questions for the Food Movement after Berkeley Approves a Soda Tax

Photo credit:  Berkeley vs Big Soda
Photo credit: Berkeley vs Big Soda

On Election Day November 4th, Berkeley voters made their town the first in the United States to approve a soda tax, endorsing Measure D to levy a penny-an-ounce tax on soda  by a 3 to 1 margin , 76% for and 24% against.  The victory came despite the fact that Big Soda poured $2.3 million dollars into the campaign, about $409 per voter that sided with the industry position.  For the food justice movement, the win demands a careful analysis of the lessons learned.  I raise 5 questions to get us started in this analysis. 

 

1.  Everybody knows that Berkeley is the capital of the Left Coast but the town has set important national trends before.  What are the characteristics of Berkeley and the campaign that may be generalizeable to other places in the US?

 

“We fully expect other communities to take on the soda industry and succeed,” said  Yes on D Co-Chair Dr. Vicki Alexander after the victory.  “Berkeley has a proud history of setting nationwide trends, such as nonsmoking sections in restaurants and bars, curb cuts for wheelchairs, curbside recycling, and public school food policies. But many communities have the same ingredients that made Measure D possible in Berkeley: proactive parents and community leaders who care about the health of their kids.”   Yes on D built a broad, diverse and inclusive community coalition.

 

A report in the Contra Costa Times  provided further perspectives on  Berkeley’s role as trend setter rather than outlier.   Tom Lochner wrote:

 

Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, is among those who believe the No on D camp is mistaken to view Berkeley as a stand-alone oddity. Rather, Goldstein describes Berkeley as “a pretty significant trendsetter for what happens in California and what happens in the country, on the progressive side.” “If you think about the Free Speech Movement, care and attention to people with disabilities, curb cuts for wheelchairs, indoor smoking ordinances, fast-food packaging — major environmental, social justice and public health movements have begun in Berkeley, and often, when they began, people saw them as radical,” Goldstein said. “But because they focused on justice and protecting people and the environment, those movements caught on, and spread across the country quite quickly.”

 

Dozens of local, statewide and national organizations supported Yes on D. We need to understand how the Coalition attracted this support and what other communities can do to replicate this success.

 

2.  What can we learn about framing public health messages that counter Big Soda from the Berkeley campaign? 

 

The Coalition, learning in part from the tobacco movement, painted Big Soda as the opponent.  And obligingly, Big Soda did everything possible to live up to its stereotype—spending millions, suing the city, and distorting science.  What will Big Soda learn from this defeat?  Their public message is that no other town in America would ever follow Berkeley down this path but we can expect that they will vary their tactics on the next battle to incorporate what they learned here.  Anticipating Big Soda’s next steps will help the food moment to get ready for the next campaigns.

 

3.  In other places—like San Francisco – and on other issues—like GMO labeling—health advocates lost elections.  What accounted for these losses?

 

In San Francisco, the soda tax measure also won majority support but to pass it required two-thirds approval in order to levy a tax that would be dedicated to health.  To win in multiple settings, advocates will need to better understanding the ways  that business and political elites set ground rules that thwart popularly supported measures and also to choose battles where the terms are most favorable.  As Michele Simon has written, the GMO battles in Oregon and Colorado united four giants of the processed food/agribusiness  industries– Dupont, Monsanto, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola were the largest donors to these campaigns—as well as to the efforts to defeat soda taxes in California.  As Simon noted, “The good news is that the more we identify these shady lobbying tactics and dirty tricks and expose the moneyed interests behind them, the less effective the industry efforts will be.”

 

4.  Taxes are one strategy to reduce soda consumption.  What are others? How do we decide on the best portfolio of strategies? 

 

From the tobacco control movement, we have learned that no single strategy can by itself diminish the toll from corporate promotion of disease.  In tobacco, it was the combination of taxes, clean air laws, counter-advertising, litigation and community mobilization that led to the decline in tobacco use.  Some in the food movement note the limitations of soda taxes but don’t always propose alternatives.  Previously, I have described eight approaches to reducing sugar consumption.  Now is the time to consider how to assemble the most effective portfolio of approaches to enable us to save lives in this generation instead of 40 years in the future.

 

5.    What’s the potential –and limits—of reducing diet-related disease by taking on one product or one industry? 

 

Current evidence suggests that no ingredient plays a stronger role in diet-related disease than sugar and no product more consistently delivers dangerous doses of sugar to broad sections of the population than soda and other sugary beverages.  That’s the rationale for targeting soda and sugar for public policy and regulation.  But it is also true that the more fundamental cause of the rise of diet-related diseases is a food production system that values profit over public well-being and  highly processed food over whole food and that promotes the least healthy foods most heavily and the healthier ones almost not at all.  The deepest solution, therefore, is not more regulation for each of the hundreds or thousands of harmful products but instead a transformed food system where making healthy food available to all is the priority.  Charting the paths that can lead from incremental policies like soda taxes to transformational ones that move us away from our disease–inducing diets is the challenge of the  day.

 

More on Soda Taxes and the California votes 

Berkeley breaks through on soda tax. By Helena Bottemiller Evich in Politico.

Berkeley Wins: What’s Next for Soda Taxes?  By Dana Woldow in BeyondChron the Voice of the Next.

Big Food Uses Dirty Tricks in Ballot Fights over GMO Labeling and Soda Taxes. By Michele Simon  In Al Jazeera America

Yesterday’s elections: plenty of good news for the food movement. Food Politics By Marion Nestle

When Grassroots Protest Rallies Have Corporate Sponsors. Nightline ABC News