On November 4th, the voters in Berkeley, California revolted against the status quo of health injustice when we came together to pass Measure D, the initiative to place a one cent per ounce excise tax on fully sugared beverages and use these resources to support school and community based programs designed to prevent diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other chronic diseases. This win was about a group of concerned parents, public health leaders, and city officials seeking a path to disrupt a system where unhealthy sugary beverages are aggressively marketed and made available to our children. The overconsumption of these beverages has led to higher rates of obesity and diabetes among our children and teens—especially those from families of color and also from those with less financial resources. This victory was as much about disincentivizing the overconsumption of sugary sweetened beverages as it was about enabling health justice.
How does a win against Big Soda translate into a win for health justice? Linking these two can seem like sensationalistic overreach. But, when one considers that today, in 2014, children who are born in the East San Francisco Bay hills to more affluent families have a life expectancy of 88 years while those born in the flatlands to families with less financial means is only 73 years, there is something that is fundamentally wrong. Before children even nurse for the first time, their disparate life expectancies have already been determined. That most of us passively accept this 15 year life expectancy difference as normal is a problem.
In Berkeley, our elected and community leaders have been working hard to reduce these types of health disparities. Through partnerships, Berkeley’s Ecology Center runs farmer’s markets in some key areas of the city and also has a program called Farm Fresh Choice that provides subsidized fresh fruits and vegetables in low- income neighborhoods. Our city leadership has worked hard to institute policies and practices that make Berkeley a walkable city with excellent public transportation options. We have bike boulevards, running paths, and you only need to walk about six blocks in any direction to find a well-kept and safe park or community garden. Our community safety index is very high. We even tax ourselves extra to make sure our children can access an excellent public education system. We do all this to help promote general health and wellness for all of our residents.
So, when Berkeley’s Department of Public Health issued a report in 2013 that still showed health disparities among our city’s most vulnerable populations, especially rates of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, we asked ourselves what else we could do? Following the best research and scientific evidence, we realized that we needed to change the norms around the quality of what our children were drinking, especially in light of the aggressive marketing practices that are targeted to children of color. We wanted to disrupt this status quo of poor health by educating Berkeley’s children about good nutrition, cooking healthily, and gardening. But how could we support this effort?
This is where the idea for the tax on sugary sweetened beverages came in. After we saw what happened in Richmond, California in 2012, when the beverage industry spent over $170 per vote to drive wedges between communities of color and also poor communities, and overwhelmingly killed their efforts to tax sugary beverages, we knew we were in for an epic street-fight.
There is not enough space in this column to describe the timeline for how the Berkeley Health Child Coalition came about—that is for another longer piece that may come later—but let it suffice to say that all the right players came together at the right time to advance our initiative, to protect our children’s health. Without the foundation that had been laid over the last 20 years, the dedication of the initiative’s steering committee, and the immense ground effort by the volunteers who walked into campaign headquarters in the last weeks before the election, our victory would not have been possible.
Going up against the beverage industry’s $2.4 million effort to kill our initiative was very difficult and required a small army of dedicated and passionate volunteers—who were not satisfied with the status quo—to repeatedly canvas our neighborhoods, street by street, house by house, in response to the continuous onslaught of deceptive and misleading messaging.
On election night, as we nervously waited for the election results to trickle in, we were surprised when we saw the results for the first 8 precincts. Though we only needed 50% of the vote to win, we came in at 73%. As the evening wore on, our elation only grew as the percentages kept inching upwards. The final count is 75%. In the world of elections, this margin is not just a campaign victory, it is an electoral mandate for health justice!
Though this street-fight with the beverage industry has left us bloody and bruised, we Berkeleyans are very proud that our city could not be bought. When push came to shove, our voters stood fast for justice. And like our friend Dr. Cornel West has often proclaimed, “never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”
On Tuesday, November 4th, Berkeley was the undisputed City of Love.