Will Sweetened Beverage Tax Money Support The Community Equitably?

by Carolyn Bick

If Mayor Jenny Durkan agrees, most of the money garnered from the Sweetened Beverage Tax will continue to fund education and nutrition programs within the communities most disproportionately affected by the tax.

The City of Seattle implemented the tax at the beginning of 2018, with projected revenue estimates of around $14,820,000. However, because the city collected more than $10 million within the first six months of the tax, it increased that projection to as much as $22 million by the end of the year.

Some critics of the tax argued that it is regressive and impacts communities of color and low-income communities more than others. The city tried to alleviate these concerns by committing nearly all of the estimated funds to programs within these communities.

Sweetened Beverage Tax Community Advisory Board members Leika Suzumura and Christina Wong presented the board’s recommendations at a Sustainability and Transportation Committee meeting on Sept. 7. For the city’s 2019 budget, the board recommended that the city continue to put all of the revenue from the tax –– minus 20 percent for evaluations, administration, and one-time investments –– back into the community in the form of various existing community programs, such as the Fresh Bucks program and the Farm to Table initiative. The board based the recommendations not only on the board members’ own expertise, but also on responses from the community.

South Seattle residents such as Kevin Porter know firsthand the impact these programs have on the community. Porter is a member of Got Green’s Food Access Team. Speaking on behalf of the South Seattle-based community justice organization, Porter said that he and the organization supported continuing to channel the tax money back into the community.

“Because the revenue of this tax has gone towards the continuation of the Fresh Bucks program, and creation of the expansion program, families like mine will have access to healthy, affordable food,” Porter said.

Healthy King County Coalition’s Program Director Val Thomas-Matson also supported the tax, and asked that the funding continue to go towards closing the food access gap. The coalition is meant to eliminate health disparities that lead to inequity, through community mobilization. Several South End-based organizations, including Got Green, belong to the coalition.

“One of the reasons I wanted to speak today was just to share my voice in the support of what good work is beginning to happen, because of the … tax,” Thomas-Matson said. “We are in contact with people who are seeing the benefits, and it’s a wonderful thing.”

The money collected has also helped move Fresh Bucks to Go, a program that provides families with preschool-age children with fresh produce, from a pilot stage to full implementation with year-round programming. Wong said the program is projected to reach about 1,400 children ages 2 to 6, double its reach from the previous year. She said it will also increase the number of program access sites, “adding more community-based locations, specifically family centers, community centers, and meal programs.”

The board also recommended using the revenue collected to expand programs that continue to close the food security gap within the city. For instance, it recommended expanding the Fresh Bucks program to include those who are currently ineligible for the program, based on the program’s current language. Wong said this would include people who exist within the food security gap. In addition to being ineligible for Fresh Bucks, they are also ineligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, and Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), because they make just enough money to fall outside the 200 percent federal poverty line. However, they still do not make enough money to ensure access to healthy food options. It would also include people who are ineligible, based on immigration restrictions.

“[It also includes] residents who may not be participating in this because of the stigma that’s attached, or feel like it’s too much of a burden to go through paperwork and filing for it,” Wong said. “We also want to make Fresh Bucks more accessible at more year-round retail sites and settings, with a balance between major grocery stores and supermarkets, ethnically-owned neighborhood stores, and produce markets.”

Wong said the board also wants to expand the Fresh Bucks Rx program—in which health providers “prescribe” fruits and vegetables—by partnering with community-based organizations and health clinics to serve vulnerable residents experiencing food and nutrition insecurity, or living with nutrition-related diseases, such as obesity and diabetes. Because these issues can’t be tackled without additional support, the board recommended continuing 2018’s funding towards nutrition education and physical activity, accounting for 9 percent of the revenue allocation. The board recommended continuing to put another 9 percent toward providing fresh fruits and vegetables to schoolchildren, and healthy foods to people with diabetes and obesity.

Finally, Wong said, the revenue will be used to expand education services, such as coaching to childcare workers who care for children up to three years old. It will also allow the city to partner with King County to create a developmental bridge program meant to work with families who have children with developmental delays, but are ineligible for early intervention services.

“The program is in developmental processes this fall, and policies will be finalized, after the city and county engage in a racial equity toolkit process,” Wong said.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien said after the meeting that though the initial years of the tax’s revenue will be used to fund various education programs — such as 13th Year, which provides tuition to help students access one year of college — those programs will be phased out, as people buy fewer sugary drinks, and revenue decreases. O’Brien said that he doesn’t know exactly what will replace that revenue, to keep the positive impacts of these programs in place, but said he doesn’t want to rely on a tax that disproportionately impacts communities of color and low-income communities.

“We want to make sure that all kids throughout the community have access to first and second year of college –– that’s great, but let’s have a tax that is broadly representative, or even targets folks at the higher end of the low-income levels,” O’Brien said.

He also acknowledged that, while the tax is designed to change behavior, and discourage people from drinking unhealthy beverages, this behavior “comes from a lack of choice, as opposed to an abundance of choices” in low-income communities and communities of color.

“So, while … those are all really great programs, and I support them, I just don’t want to support them with a tax that disproportionately paid by lower-income communities that don’t have options,” O’Brien said. “I want to be investing directly back in those communities.”

When asked what the Mayor plans to do with the revenue, Mayor’s Office Press Secretary Kamaria Hightower said in an email that Durkan will announce her budget on Sept. 24.

Featured Image by Aaron Burkhalter.

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