Sunday, November 13, 2016

Bay Area Soda Tax Win: An Evidence of the Undeniable Effectiveness of Grassroots Organizing

A quadrupled number of women of color in the Senate isn't the only encouraging news coming out of Election 2016. Oakland, San Francisco, and Albany are now among the first 6 cities in the country to levy a tax on soda and other sweetened beverages. Next only to Berkeley (first ever!) in 2014 and Philly in June 2016. Boulder also joined us from Colorado.

As a quick primer, this measure levies a tax of 1 to 2 cents (depending on the city) on every ounce of these beverages sold by a distributor. The distributor often passes on the increased cost to the seller, who, then, typically raises the price of the product to make up for it. This makes the drinks more expensive to buy, thereby driving down consumption and preventing the ongoing public health crises of diabetes and obesity from worsening, particularly among children.

The fight wasn't easy. Not when the soda corps have practically unlimited resources to pour into these campaigns: $50 million in all 3 cities combined! It took no moral hesitation for them to mis-characterize this move as "grocery tax" and flood the residents with false media ads and mailbox flyers. There's no way any city can beat a campaign of this proportion on a shoestring budget. But despite that, we, the residents, prevailed. Even in the court of law.


Well, by deploying ground troops. Quite literally. Grassroots organizing in the communities, that is. In Oakland, for example, Tramutola and TOLA led the effort. Besides getting endorsements from nearly every significant health and social justice organization in the city and many prominent elected officials, what really got the measure passed was an aware and educated voter base.

But how to educate the voters with right information when nearly every flyer in their mailbox tells them to vote No on Grocery Tax? The media ads portrayed vulnerable immigrants making a plea in heavy accent that the additional tax would take away their livelihood. Big Soda even listed Bernie Sanders as their supporter until he explicitly asked them not to.

By reaching out to the residents in-person for a one-on-one conversation. Going on precinct walks, knocking on their doors. Calling them on phone in the evenings and on the weekends. By attracting a formidable army of volunteers who believed in this effort. Training those volunteers before dispatching them. Debriefing after field runs. And then watching the volunteer base itself hit a critical mass such that folks bring along their friends and acquaintances to join the effort, even if it's only for one evening. And then feeding the volunteers while they spend long, tiring hours at it =).

In the many hours that I personally volunteered for this campaign, it wasn't easy. Precinct walks of 4+ hours were quite tiring. Many people weren't home. Some were rude for no reason. One person even escorted me out of their property. But then, I'm a pachyderm when it comes to advocating for social justice issues =). And every positive response was motivating. I learned about this effort rather late, so, to stay encouraged, I had before me committed folks who had been at it the entire election season.

While phone banking, a lot of people wouldn't take the call if they don't recognize the caller ID. Many would hang up on me immediately as soon as they realized I was a stranger. Long sequences of no meaningful conversations were quite discouraging, actually. Further, about 25% of the voters simply could not be convinced. People argued about leaving it to personal choice, parents' responsibility, anorexia, malnutrition, etc., without relating their own financial burdens of sky-rocketing insurance premiums and healthcare costs to this issue of excessive sugar consumption.

Despite these setbacks, there were so many persistent volunteers that we ran out of registered voters to call via Call Fire and resorted to hand dialing to maximize our outreach one evening. Even high schoolers from Oakland Tech volunteered. That's some serious grit for teenagers to display. A character-building experience for me, personally. Certainly in retrospect, given the outcome now.

The science between excessive sugar consumption and health risks is undeniable; public awareness is fast catching up to it. The tax in Berkeley led to a decrease in soda consumption by 21% and brought in an additional revenue of $2 million that went towards cooking, gardening, and nutrition programs. An advisory committee oversees the usage of the funds. Chicago's home county quickly followed the Bay Area to make soda pricier for 5 million more Americans on 11/10/16. In fact, this fight is global now.

But, hey, why is this so significant?

All too often, we rely on our elected officials to make the right decisions for us. But in an age where most politicians have been bought out by deep-pocketed corporations and lobby groups, making any progress is nearly impossible. Outrageously, the processed food companies, Big Meat, Big Milk, Big Eggs, Big Pharma, Big Coal, Big Oil, Big you name it are in the business of what they do not for our well-being but for their own profits.

If we don't educate and organize ourselves now, they will plunder our health and this planet's non-renewable resources from underneath us until there is no new drug to be invented, no more trees to be fallen, no more coal and oil to be dug up, and no more money to be made. Now that we have a leader of the Free World who doesn't believe in climate change, grassroots movements are more essential than ever before.

Gregory Mankiw communicates this urgency in the same vein in Before the Flood:


It is the American people that we had to preach to today to pass the soda tax. It's the people that the Native Americans are speaking to to protest the Dakota Pipeline. It's the people that are finding plant-based alternatives to meat, dairy, poultry, and fish to make our diets more sustainable today and for 10 billion of us in 2050. It's an ordinary doctor like Neal Barnard who has taken it upon himself to influence health policy making in Washington and Michael Greger to educate the people about the completeness of plant-based nutrition. No organization could be relied upon to do these things for us.

Any pursuit of mankind becomes a movement only when the common people join. A movement is what we need today to turn the tide in favor of a healthy and prolonged human civilization on this planet.

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