A new local initiative aims to repeal Seattle’s tax on sugary beverages, a move that could hurt programs that aim to broaden access to healthy foods for low-income households.
I-128, or Restore Consumer Choices, would kill the controversial tax that levies 1.75 cents on each ounce of certain beverages with added sugar. That tax was approved in 2017 and went into effect in 2018.
It was expected to raise $15 million this year, but is now on track to clock in at more than $20 million.
Money from the Sweetened Beverage Tax has been used to beef up community meal programs, provide fresh fruits and vegetables to school children and expand the Fresh Bucks program, which makes federal food benefits go further at Seattle-area farmers markets. Tax revenues are also earmarked for early childhood and other educational programs.
The originator of the initiative, District 7 council candidate Elizabeth Campbell, said that many of the programs slated for funding aren’t directly related to food access and health outcomes and that other programs are duplicative and transfer money from the city to the school systems.
“I think that the city is spending needlessly what I call our prosperity dividends,” Campbell said.
In the wake of the November passage of Initiative 1634 (a statewide initiative that prohibits local taxes on groceries), it will be impossible to replace those dollars with another tax on sugary drinks if the repeal is successful. That initiative left Seattle’s sweetened beverage tax whole, but prevented new ones from being enacted statewide. It also makes it impossible to increase the amount of the tax locally.
Opponents of I-1634 argued that its marketing campaign was disingenuous. I-1634’s campaign ads focused on actual groceries, despite the fact that the state already exempted many food products from taxation. Proponents argued that the measure would prevent taxes on distributors that would later be passed on to the consumer, much like the tax on sugary beverages.
While it passed at the state level, King County voters did not support I-1634 — it failed among county voters by almost 10 points in an election that brought out 74.8 percent of the county’s registered voters. Efforts against the Sweetened Beverage Tax may also run afoul of local voters. An August 2018 baseline report about the tax included a poll that showed that 58 percent of participants supported the tax.
News of I-128 was a surprise to Tanika Thompson, a food access organizer with Got Green. The organization fights for environmental, racial and economic justice, and was intimately involved in the development of the tax and plans on how to use the funds raised.
The involvement of community groups was a critical element in selling the tax, which is regressive and falls largely on communities of color, since they are the largest consumers of the kinds of sweetened beverages hit by the tax. Other drinks more favored by White households, such as diet sodas and Pumpkin Spice Lattes, are not hit by the tax.
“The team felt the same way I do: We have put so much time into this and so much positive has come from it already,” Thompson said. She pointed to a recent example where Got Green received 800 vouchers worth up to $60 each that could be spent on fruit and vegetables at local Safeway supermarkets, just in time for the holiday season.
Thompson believes that spreading information about how the tax revenues are being spent will be an integral part of defending the tax.
“Healthy food is so expensive, and our health depends on it,” Thompson said.
While the tax is used to open up access to fruits and vegetables, it’s unclear at this point if it has deterred consumption of sugary beverages in Seattle. The tax raised far more revenue than researchers had anticipated, although that could have to do more with conservative estimations by researchers than actual purchases. The city is working with researchers at the University of Washington to study the impact of the tax.
There are serveral studies in the works this year that are taking a deep look at sugar taxes, said Jim Krieger, a professor of medicine and public health at UW. Existing literature was convincing enough for the American Heart Association to support such taxes, Krieger said.
It’s also a dollars and cents argument. If the tax goes and no other funding is identified, food access and education programs go with it.
“Those are pretty important programs,” Krieger said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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