Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed soda tax was passed today by City Council. Kenney originally proposed a controversial 3-cents-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, like sodas, fruit juices and sports drinks. City Council compromised, however, instead implementing a 1.5-cents-per-ounce tax on these beverages, as well as the diet versions of these drinks.
The tax, which was pitched to City Council as a way to fund pre-K programs, will raise $409.5 million throughout the next five years. In addition to raising revenue for pre-K programs, some of this funding will also go toward fixing local parks, creating new schools in the city and raising money for city programs and employee benefits.
While I’m glad the tax has been reduced from Kenney’s original 3-cents-per-ounce proposal, I still do not think the tax should have been implemented at all. This tax will still place a financial burden on poor families who do not have access to healthy beverage alternatives because they live in “food deserts.”
A food desert, according to the American Nutrition Association’s website is defined as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.”
In urban areas, like Philadelphia, food deserts exist when the travel distance to the nearest supermarket is at least one mile away. The closest supermarket to my home in West Philadelphia is The Fresh Grocer at 1.4 miles away on 40th and Walnut streets. I myself live in a food desert.
Philadelphia has a high number of food deserts in the western, southwestern and northern parts of the city, in neighborhoods like West Oak Lane and Mount Airy, according to 2013 data from the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Food Access Research Atlas.
This soda tax will negatively impact people living in these food deserts as Harold Honickman, the chairman of the Honickman soft drink bottling and distribution company, explains in an interview with Philadelphia Magazine.
“Many mom-and-pop bodega stores in the city will go out of business or be seriously damaged,” Honickman said. “About 20 percent of their sales are juices or sodas or some type of liquid beverage.”
Many families living in Philadelphia neighborhoods, like mine in West Philadelphia, only have access to these small corner stores, which have less healthy options. Most of these corner stores, for example, sell beverages that are high in fat and sugar, while offering a limited amount of vegetables and fruits, if any, to make healthier drink options like lemonade or smoothies.
And access to nutritious food is unevenly distributed throughout all of Pennsylvania. In “Healthy Food Access in Pennsylvania,” The Food Trust, an organization that fights for food accessibility and operates in Philadelphia, said, “There are significant areas of the commonwealth with few full-service grocery stores and many neighborhoods in which none exist.”
Not only do low-income residents not have closer access to grocery stores, they are also not able to afford the high prices of buying healthier organic food options if they were to make it to a supermarket a mile away. I believe with this new soda tax, poor Philadelphians living in food deserts will see an increase in the cost of their groceries due to rising prices of sugary drinks, while still not being able to afford the healthier options, which remain even more expensive.
However, Nancy Andresen, a nurse practitioner at Temple’s Student Health Services, believes the soda tax may be beneficial in reducing Philadelphia’s unhealthy sugar habits.
“It would be a public health benefit and have people move away from sugary drinking,” she said.
“When you have a lot of sugar in your diet, there is a high amount of calories,” Andresen added. “It’s been shown by research that the consumption of sugary soda [has the potential] to bring about diabetes.”
While Andresen may be right about the negative health impacts of sugary beverages, I don’t think this soda tax will encourage Philadelphians to buy healthier beverages. For example, buying a 2-liter bottle of Coke for about $2 will still be cheaper than purchasing bottles of all-natural Naked juice for the whole family at about $4.50 per bottle.
Kenney’s main goal in implementing the soda tax isn’t even to reduce obesity or improve public health, but is mainly to improve public schooling. If the money from Kenney’s soda tax were being put toward increasing food access in impoverished areas or implementing nutrition programs, I could consider supporting the tax, but that is not the case.
The only other city in the country that has a tax similar to Kenney’s proposed soda tax is Berkeley, California, which only began its tax about two years ago.
Berkeley’s soda tax money, however, has been invested in health programs, not public education. Philadelphia’s version of the soda tax will only burden people from buying soda, while not explicitly addressing the health issues surrounding high soda consumption.
And even with the promises of improving schools and parks, I see Philadelphia’s soda tax as discriminatory toward lower income residents who do not have access to healthier beverage options.
Sen. Bernie Sanders agrees, calling the soda tax a “regressive grocery tax” in a op-ed for Philadelphia Magazine about how the tax would affect low-income residents.
“It would make much more sense to finance universal preschool in Philadelphia by raising taxes on its wealthiest residents who currently benefit from flat state and city tax rates,” Sanders wrote in April.
Now, if the tax goes accordingly and does provide the needed funding for the School District of Philadelphia, then I think the tax will be beneficial to the city, but the problem of low food access will still not be resolved. Fixing one problem by creating another one is not a solution, and that is exactly what Philadelphia’s soda tax does.
This regressive tax is creating funding at the expense of Philadelphia’s most impoverished.
Jaya Montague can be reached at email@example.com.