Op-ed: Why a liberal mother of 2 is voting no on Measure D

I begin with this confession: I don’t drink soda and I never have. My boys, ages 9 and 12, don’t drink soda, either. In fact, I’ve never even let them try it, because I didn’t want them to like it. If either of them has tried it, he didn’t tell me about it, or there would have been a lecture about sugar and empty calories. We don’t even drink juice; it’s only water and low fat milk for us.

It would be reasonable to assume that these factors would put me in favor of Measure D, except that I am not. And I debated for a long time whether or not to talk about my opposition to Measure D, because it is scary to speak out against a majority opinion, but my feelings about this measure are so strong that I am unable to remain silent.  I’m sure people who know me from schools and PTA meetings will think upon reading this “but I thought Jill cared about our kids?” because who doesn’t support helping our kids by curbing their refined sugar intake?

But, in my opinion, Measure D is not about helping kids, and it is not about fighting Big Soda, as it has been advertised. Measure D is about Berkeley’s establishment attempting to impose its choices onto the rest of us, through a tax. A tax which will do nothing that it claims to do, such as fighting this country’s obesity epidemic, or fighting “Big Soda;” a tax which will not even achieve its stated purpose of reducing consumption of soda.

And so it is because I care about our kids that I have to write this – not just my kids, but the 1,729 kids in Berkeley who live below the poverty line. I care about whether or not they have beds to sleep in, a roof over their heads, and clothes to wear. I care about whether they have enough food to eat or whether they have access to healthcare. I think that we need to take care of these basic needs first, and then we can talk about how much sugar they get. In fact, I believe very much that every Berkeley resident deserves an equal chance to be healthy, not just the ones who can afford it. And it is because of these beliefs that I am now speaking out against Measure D.

I have chosen not to drink soda and for my children not to drink soda, but it is not my place to impose my decisions onto others, and neither is it that of the City Council. Here in Berkeley we talk so much about keeping the government out of our bedrooms, yet somehow we’re okay with inviting them into our kitchens? I’d prefer to keep them out of my house, altogether, and I cannot justify a change in that thinking just because I happen to think soda is bad for you. Everybody already knows soda is bad for you and yet we should all be free to decide for ourselves what to eat and drink.

I’ve seen a lot of talk about how Big Soda will try to confuse us, the voters, because of all the money they’ll be pouring into defeating Measure D, alongside the statistics about children developing diabetes, and… you should know that I am not easily fooled. I have read the ordinance and the part I find confusing is exactly how Measure D will do anything about the health statistics that it quotes.  Personally, I need more than talking points about diabetes and friendly looking lawn signs to convince me, I need an actual connection between this specific tax and our kids’ health; I need a direct line that starts from Measure D’s proposed tax and ends with helping our kids. I just don’t see it.

The stated purpose of Measure D is “to diminish the human and economic costs of diseases associated with the consumption of sugary drinks by discouraging their distribution and consumption in Berkeley through a tax.” Essentially, the tax is meant to raise the cost of soda, thus discouraging sales. Except Measure D places a tax on distributors, whom we call “Big Soda,” not on us, the consumer. It is not a sales tax assessed at the time of purchase, it is a tax on “the privilege of conducting business” in the city. So when people buy soda, they won’t see an extra “sugar tax” added onto their bill like we do with cigarettes, the tax is assessed when a distributor sells to a retailer, who will then pass on their cost to us, the consumer.

But how will they pass on their cost? The companies who distribute Coca-Cola and their products, are the same companies who distribute things like Dasani water. What if they decide that they don’t want to jeopardize their soda revenue and that it’s more cost effective for them to raise the price of their water, instead?  After all, this is Big Soda we’re talking about, as long as they recoup their costs, it doesn’t matter how they do it. There’s nothing in the ordinance which compels them to do anything other than pay a tax, therefore the cost of bottled water, not the cost of soda, might go up as a result of Measure D. If we even notice the tax at all it will be in the form of generally increased prices overall and, in the end, we could all see an increase in our grocery bill, whether we buy soda or not.

Proponents of Measure D are congratulating themselves for being the first city in the country to “take on Big Soda,” but it is not enough to simply make this statement without showing some evidence that this is what actually will result. Do we really believe Big Soda will just absorb this new tax, themselves? Like I said, I am not easily fooled. I don’t believe that Berkeley is David facing Goliath; Big Soda will not be harmed by the enactment of Measure D. Instead, they will pass on their increased costs to the consumers, just as the measure intends.

And then there’s the money itself once it comes into the city. With children in BUSD schools, I was crushed by the closing of the district’s heralded cooking and gardening program, but does Measure D save that program? No. Measure D is a general tax, the money raised “will provide revenue to be available for the general governmental needs of the people of Berkeley.” This money will not be set aside to create health programs or fund any school district programs or public information campaigns. While it creates a “Sugar Sweetened Beverage Product Panel of Experts” tasked to “make recommendations” to the City Council on how they should spend the money, the measure requires only that the City Council “consider, but need not follow, the Panel’s recommendations.” Ultimately, the City can do whatever it wants with this money.

And then there’s the issue of the health of our children, which Measure D claims to protect. We all agree that soda is bad for you; it’s not only full of sugar, it has little to no nutritional value. We also agree that there is an obesity epidemic in this country, one that disproportionately impacts our low-income populations. Except the causes of this obesity epidemic are rooted not simply in the consumption of sugary drinks, but in socioeconomic inequality, fueled by the billions of dollars in taxes that we all already pay in the form of federal subsidies to corn and wheat farmers. These taxes help make boxed and processed foods affordable while ensuring that fresh, healthy foods remain unaffordable. It is why a Happy Meal with a large soda is $5 while a salad and a bottle of water is $7; why a bucket of chicken and all the sides can easily and affordably feed a family of five but a trip to the farmer’s market cannot. In short, it is not soda that makes us fat and gives us diabetes, it is the overconsumption of refined/processed foods, under-consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, and a lack of physical activity that makes us fat and gives us diabetes.

Over the past 20 months, I have lost 65 pounds after having spent my entire adult life being clinically obese. Ultimately, test results showing I was pre-diabetic forced me finally to do something about my weight and now, 20 months later, those tests results are normal. People ask me how I did it, and I tell them “hard work and patience.” The truth is that there is another factor, equally important, that I don’t mention: that of my socioeconomic status. I have the resources and the access needed to purchase fresh, organic produce and meats. I have the flexibility of a part-time work schedule so that I can carve out an hour every day to exercise. I have the money to spend $43 a month to go to Weight Watchers. Were it not for my ability to do these things, simple hard work and patience would not have been enough for me to make so much progress and reverse the damaging effects of a lifetime of being overweight.

The Food Research and Action Center, a nonprofit organization working to eradicate hunger and under-nutrition in the United States, identifies key factors that contribute to why low-income and food insecure people are vulnerable to obesity. The factors include lack of access to affordable healthy foods, limited access to healthcare, and limited resources. Economically challenged families must make daily choices about what they can afford and are forced to make unhealthy decisions because they are the most affordable, and now we want these same families to pay more for their groceries by raising prices? Because we disapprove of their choices? And we can’t even guarantee that the money raised will help anybody? As a mother who cares about kids, as a liberal, as a human being; this idea offends me to my core.

I am not Big Soda; I don’t even drink soda. I’m just a Berkeley mom who has done my homework and in my opinion Measure D does not help Berkeley’s kids, it does not conquer Big Soda, it does not even accomplish what it attempts to achieve. I care a lot about protecting our kids’ health, but with Measure D that is not what we are being asked to vote on. If you are like me and you care about Berkeley’s kids, about all of our kids, I urge you to join me in voting no on Measure D.

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Jill Herschman is a Berkeley Unified mom and community activist. Opinions expressed here are her own.