In their latest attempt to curb soda consumption, and ultimately the soda industry’s influence in low-income communities, several D.C. Council members have garnered the support of local nonprofits and grassroots organizations, some of which have framed food insecurity as a matter of public safety.
Earlier this month, D.C. Council members Brianne Nadeau (D- Ward 1), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Trayon White (D-Ward 8), and six of their colleagues introduced the Healthy Beverage Choices Amendment Act. If approved, it would replace the 8 percent sales tax on sodas and sugary drinks with a $0.015-per-ounce excise tax, the revenue from which would fund healthy food initiatives, child care, and recreation programs.
For Ronnie Webb, head of the Green Scheme, and an affiliate of the Don’t Mute My Health movement, the policy aligns with ongoing efforts to increase healthy food access for people living in the eastern part of the District. On October 8, surrounded by his son, fellow coalition members, and Council members Cheh, Nadeau, and White, Webb decried what he described as the beverage industry’s overwhelming presence in the District’s food deserts.
“I’m scared for my son’s future. He is a young Black child, and they tend to consume more sugary drinks and have access to less healthy drinks,” Webb said from the front steps of the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest. “It’s a design and plan by the industry to target young people like [my son] Josh when they turn on the television and walk into the corner stores. Neighborhoods in Wards 5,7, and 8 have [most of the] ads.”
On October 1, the 8 percent sales tax on soda and sugary drinks went into effect. The increase from 6 percent will expand free-breakfast programs at schools and recreation centers and support a fruit and vegetable voucher program. The sales tax increase didn’t shake the soda lobby; sales tax, unlike excise tax, gets added at the register instead of on the product.
Supporters of the excise tax said the increase is designed to curtail soda and sugary drink consumption while increasing that of water and healthier beverages. However, some people like Sharece Crawford, contend that by that time, people in communities east of the Anacostia River would have doled out several dollars.
That’s why she said accountability measures must be put in place to ensure the funds are used correctly.
“I have questions about where the dollars are going and how do we not disenfranchise the most impacted by increasing costs,” said Crawford, a communications strategist and former ANC commissioner of Single-Member Districts 8E03 and 8E04, located in Congress Heights. “I’m for food equity [but if] people are getting taxed, I think we need to make sure that the language is right and every dollar comes back.”
A Virginia Commonwealth University study last year found that residents of upper Northwest live at least 15 years longer than their counterparts east of the Anacostia River. In low-income communities where sodas and other sugary foods cost less than fruits and vegetables, people often develop diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses.
In 2010, Cheh proposed similarly crafted excise tax legislation that failed to pass by one vote. In the years since food insecurity has increasingly become a part of the dialogue about chronic illness in low-income communities. As the Healthy Beverage Choices Amendment Act advances through the council, some supporters, like Dr. Yolandra Hancock, said they have employed a strategy focused on D.C. residents more so than the soda and sugary drink lobby.
“This is about educating people about the impact of sugary drinks and sugary drink alternatives. It’s not that we don’t have access to those alternatives, but [the problem] is getting them,” said Dr. Hancock, a professor at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.
“I grew up in an income-challenged environment, but [during that time] sugar drinks were more expensive than water. The problems happened when we shifted that ratio. When we engage the community, that’s where the change starts to happen.”