CommunityHamil R. Harris

D.C.’s Proposed Sugar Tax Sparks Racially Charged Debate

Dr. Yolandra Hancock doesn’t have to read a medical journal to know how soda and other sugar-filled drinks destroy people, young and old, in the African American community and why people of color are disproportionately dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of whites.

“My youngest diabetic patient is 9 years old,” said Hancock, a pediatrician and professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health. “She lost her father to diabetes, her mother has diabetes, her grandmother has diabetes, and after I saw her, she pulled out a Pepsi.”

A hearing on the Nutrition Equity Amendment Act of 2021 is scheduled for Wednesday at 10 a.m.. before Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (Ward 1), who chairs the Committee on Human Services. Her bill would repeal the District’s 8% sales tax on sugary drinks and impose a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on the distribution of sugary beverages in the District.

The bill can be accessed here:

“In drafting this bill, I brought together members of the communities impacted by health disparities, health experts and advocates to identify areas where public health interventions and investments can make a difference in the health and lives of our communities,” Nadeau said in a statement.

The bill is supported by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Council members Mary Cheh, Anita Bonds, Charles Allen and Elissa Silverman.

While the bill is supported by the American Heart Association, the American Beverage Association, Feed the Truth and others oppose what they believe is a detrimental tax that could hurt small businesses and be harmful to the poor.

The Alliance for an Affordable DC, a coalition of small-business owners, neighborhood organizations and community leaders, announced Tuesday that it opposes the tax.

In a press release, the group stated: “While the city is currently spending money on grants to lift up struggling small businesses, its own city council is simultaneously pushing a detrimental tax that will hurt the same people they’re trying to help with those financial grants. This does not make economic sense. A new tax on businesses already struggling will cause even more widespread employee layoffs and force more businesses to close permanently.”

Regressive Tax on Groceries

Kip Banks, pastor of the East Washington Heights Baptist Church in Southeast, stated in a letter to The Informer signed by 90 other members of the local clergy, “What the [Nutrition Equity Act] will do is make it harder for poor, struggling families to make it in this city by adding to their grocery bills and specifically their beverages. Taxes on groceries are regressive because the lower the household income means a bigger share of their paycheck on these items.”

A. Scott Bolden, the lawyer representing minority business owners who object to the bill, characterized the measure as “well-intentioned.”

However, he said, “There are other ways to ensure a healthier lifestyle, but using a penalty to do it is never the right way, especially for businesses.”

The bill would require the content of meals served at District shelters and transitional housing to be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and would provide for greater oversight of food service vendors. It also would establish grants to support nutrition education, cooking lessons and gardens at family shelters and transitional housing to create healthy environments.

“Just as important are our homeless residents who contractor’s service,” Bolden said, arguing that health requirements are already in place by the D.C. Department of Human Services.

“The bill that would require contractors to be non-profits and that would be a detriment to CBEs (certified business enterprise) like Henry’s Soul Food that does an incredible job in regard to producing quality food while meeting FDA guidelines.”

According to a draft of the legislation, the revenue raised by the excise tax would be used by the District’s food policy director to fund the following priorities:

• Expand funding for the Department of Health Care Finance’s Food as Medicine programs (such as Produce Rx) that integrate healthy food access into the healthcare
• Expand funding for the Department of Health for programs aimed at reducing and preventing nutrition-related chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. This includes chronic disease management and prevention, and wraparound nutrition services.
• Make permanent the Mayor’s one-time investment in the newly established Nourish DC Fund to provide grants, loans, and technical assistance to local food businesses in low-access communities.

Health Risk to Children

“For those who criticize this legislation, the question is, where have you been?” Hancock said in an interview with The Informer. “In southeast D.C., 75% of the residents are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, and African Americans are three times more likely to develop COVID-19 than whites because of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sugary drinks represent a real health risk to children. On average, children in the U.S. consume more than 30 gallons of sugary drinks every year. Evidence shows that the beverage industry targets communities of color, with Black children and teens more than twice as likely to see TV ads for sugary drinks than their white peers.

In December, a working group consisting of community members who face health disparities and community health advocates convened to identify the District’s health-related priorities.

Hamil R. Harris

Hamil Harris is an award-winning journalist who worked at the Washington Post from 1992 to 2016. During his tenure he wrote hundreds of stories about the people, government and faith communities in the Greater Washington Area. Hamil has chronicled the Million Man March, the Clinton White House, the September 11 attack, the sniper attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the campaign of President Barack Obama and many other people and events. Hamil is currently a multi-platform reporter on the Local Desk of the Washington Post where he writes a range of stories, shoots photos and produces videos for the print and online editions of the Post. In addition, he is often called upon to report on crime, natural disasters and other breaking issues. In 2006 Harris was part of a team of reporters that published the series “Being a Black Man.” He was also the reporter on the video project that accompanied the series that won two Emmy Awards, the Casey Medal and the Peabody Award. Hamil has lectured at Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University, the American University, the University of Maryland and the University of the District of Columbia. He also lectures several times a year to interns during their semester in the District as part of their matriculation at the Consortium of Christian Colleges and Universities.

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