I grew up in South and West Berkeley, where low-income residents’ lives are still under constant attack as a result of systemic injustice, poverty, and racism. The resulting health inequities drive me to work towards solutions that challenge cultural norms, public policies, and the entrenched status quo. So as the Executive Director of the Ecology Center, I am particularly pleased to share the story of Berkeley vs. Big Soda.
For the last decade, the Ecology Center has been involved in bridging the local food movement and the public health community. We host the Berkeley Food Policy Council that helps create and pilot innovative community, government, and school programs to advance health equity, food justice, and local farm economies.
The Ecology Center developed Farm Fresh Choice, hiring young people to connect farmers and low-income shoppers through nutrition education and community produce stands. We piloted CalFresh EBT access at farmers’ markets and then provided technical assistance to get over 500 markets statewide to welcome SNAP shoppers. We expanded Market Match, our healthy food incentive program, to double the purchasing power of CalFresh and WIC shoppers at over 250 locations statewide.
But we are always swimming upstream against the massive marketing, extreme convenience, and addictive nature of cheap, unhealthy foods like Soda.
In 2013, I worked with other concerned residents to create the Berkeley Healthy Child Coalition. Membership grew to include parents, teachers, public health and healthcare professionals, elected officials, Berkeley NAACP, Latinos Unidos, YMCA, teachers unions, churches, food movement champions and many others. This diverse coalition successfully petitioned the City Council to include a soda tax on the November 2014 ballot.
Big Soda immediately began spending to defeat us. They used every trick in the book, including creating fake grassroots front groups, claiming the soda tax was misleading and confusing, saying it would “hurt poor people.”
But Berkeley’s young people, particularly the Ecology Center’s youth leaders, really stepped up. Alumni from our Youth Environmental Academy like Kad Smith, featured in the video, were a force to contend with during the campaign. They spent countless hours making phone calls and canvassing their neighborhoods.
By the final weeks of the campaign, the American Beverage Association had poured over $2.4 million dollars into our city. But our coalition held firm and fought back with the power of relationships: grassroots organizing, volunteers, and thousands of conversations between neighbors, parents, and friends.
All this hard work paid off. On election night, Berkeley resoundingly approved the Measure with 75% of the vote, becoming the first city in the country to levy a tax on sugary drinks.
In the first year, Berkeley’s soda tax has generated $1.5 million for community nutrition & health efforts.
This victory belongs to all of us. And especially to those who have tried before us. We dedicate it to future campaigns.
Now, we want to tell the story of how Berkeley took on Big Soda and won – so communities everywhere can watch, learn, and think about their own strategies to stand up for health. I invite you to watch the video below.
Click here to learn about what The California Endowment is doing to to reduce the consumption of sugary junk drinks and increase consumption of water.