A classroom full of toddlers dance and sing songs about growing up healthy and strong.
Kindergartners plant, harvest and eat fava beans and broccoli with their garden teacher.
Black moms gather each week for “Motherhood Circles” where they learn about nutrition with a health and wellness coach.
Outreach workers offer free water bottles and hold health workshops for immigrant families and day laborers—often meeting on the street as workers look and wait for jobs.
These are some of the creative ways the city of Berkeley is helping children and families make—and have access to—healthy choices. And all of these efforts are funded by revenue collected by a tax on sugary drinks.
Why tax sugary drinks?
Consuming sugary drinks poses a real health risk to kids. It increases their risk of excess weight gain and tooth decay and preventable diseases such as obesity. To date, seven U.S. cities and the Navajo Nation have passed taxes on sugary drinks. Research has generally found these taxes to be effective at reducing purchases of sugary drinks.
In the three years since Berkeley passed its tax on sugary drinks, consumption of those beverages has dropped by 52 percent in the city’s diverse and lower-income neighborhoods. That’s particularly important as Black, Latinx and economically disadvantaged communities tend to be high consumers of sugary drinks and beverage companies spend significantly more money on ads targeting these populations.
There’s something else happening in Berkeley that’s just as important as the decline in consumption: people are changing their attitudes toward sugary drinks. Once Berkeley residents learned that sugary drink companies were unfairly marketing to them, and that sugary drinks were harming their health long-term, they stopped standing for it and started making changes, like drinking more water and fewer sweetened beverages.
Local nonprofit leaders and staff who work with children in communities across the city link these changes to programs funded by the tax revenue. To date, more than $7 million from the Berkeley sugary drink tax program has helped fund initiatives designed to improve residents’ nutrition and health.
Where does the money go?
Berkeley’s city council decides how to spend the tax revenue and a local commission comprising residents, community stakeholders and public health experts, makes recommendations to the council. To date, funds have been administered to the Berkeley Unified School District, Healthy Black Families, the YMCA of the East Bay, the Ecology Center, Multicultural Institute, and Berkeley Youth Alternatives, to name a few.
While each organization has its own programming, they all use the tax revenue to directly reach and serve populations heavily targeted by the sugary drink industry, including kids of color and those growing up in price-sensitive communities. The programs educate people about the health harms of sugary drinks and provide them with resources to make healthier choices. In fact, 80% of people reached by the sugary drinks tax revenue programs report a change in attitude, interest, or intention to engage in healthier behaviors.*
*Based on 840 survey results, as reported in Healthy Berkeley: Measuring Success in our Healthy Berkeley Funded Programs (FY18), April 18, 2019, available upon request.
Together, these programs have a collective mission to change residents’ attitudes and behaviors about buying and drinking sugary drinks. Here’s a look at some of the innovative work happening in Berkeley to help make healthy choices more achievable for everyone who lives there.
Berkeley Unified School District
Every school in the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) has a gardening and cooking program. In total, the program reaches 7,000 students from preK to high school, as well as their families and residents community-wide.
Garden teachers work alongside the students and engage them in an active curriculum that involves planting and harvesting from seasonal gardens, learning about seeds and the growing process. Students also have nutrition education that includes understanding the importance of a healthy diet and how to read sugary drink labels.
“The kids love it. Parents love it. When they come to pick their kids up and they see that they are learning about nutrition and how to cook healthy foods, they are always happy to see that.”
Caregivers and parents participate as well, through nutrition events like family cooking night. The district reports that kids are drinking fewer sugar sweetened beverages and are drinking more water.**
**Based on 834 student survey results from 2018 program year, pre- and post-nutrition education program in middle and elementary schools, as reported in Healthy Berkeley: Measuring Success in our Healthy Berkeley Funded Programs (FY18), April 18, 2019, available upon request.
Healthy Black Families
In Berkeley, Black women are twice as likely to have a premature baby than white mothers, and Black people are twice as likely to die of heart disease. Healthy Black Families is a local nonprofit that reaches 1,500 Black women in Berkeley—or about 90% of Black families in the city. Board President Vicki Alexander believes the health disparities are brought on, in part, by sugary drink consumption.
“The soda industry is huge. It is powerful. And it develops these products that are damaging to our health, to our children, marketing to our children younger and younger.”
Healthy Black Families applied for a tax revenue grant to support its Thirsty for Change campaign, which educates people of color about the harm of sugary drinks and encourages them to limit consumption. The campaign promotes activities like community gardening, shopping at farmers’ markets, and cooking and eating nutritious foods. It launched a “water pledge” to ensure local partners, faith institutions, and other organizations that serve the Black community commit to choosing water over sugary drinks when hosting community meetings.
The tax revenues also support Sisters Together Empowering Peers (STEP), a peer-led group for African American moms that hosts kitchen table talks and sister circles—opportunities for women to share parenting resources and experiences. Some STEP events include free childcare and a healthy meal.
“We find time and time again, our moms are coming and seeing that this is a place of respite. This is a place you can come, let your hair down, and discuss hard challenges about navigating parenting and living as a Black woman in America.”
YMCA of the East Bay
More than 1,200 infants and toddlers participate in the YMCA of the East Bay, a Head Start and Early Head Start program that receives funding from the tax revenues. The program serves kids up to age 5 from low-income households, as well as pregnant women.
Its Healthy Me initiative teaches children to make healthy choices through art, music, dance, movement, and other hands-on learning activities. Healthy meals, nutrition education and food giveaways are a regular part of the curriculum and twice a month at parent drop-off, the YMCA also has healthy fruits and vegetables for sale to make shopping for groceries easy, convenient and affordable.
“When you see a two-year old telling a parent ‘Mom, you can’t have soda. It’s not good for you, there is sugar in that. It’s not good. You should drink water because water makes me strong and healthy.’ And they are singing songs all about it. That makes such an impact on the family–way more than if you are sitting a parent down and saying ‘You shouldn’t drink soda. It’s not good for you.”
Dijonnae Hopkins, whose son attends, says he’s “learned a lot. He comes home singing the Healthy Me songs. And he’s singing the songs in Spanish and always trying to include water in our routine at home.” Program principal (and mom) Maria Carriedo sees these routines and habits changing at the YMCA too—kids are coming into the classroom with water bottles now instead of juice boxes.
The Multicultural Institute, which is staffed by immigrants, works to serve immigrants and their families who are often overlooked and underserved. Program Coordinator Eduardo Rosas explains that sugary drinks are not part of immigrant families’ cultures, but many families live and work in places where sugary drinks are heavily marketed to them and readily available.
Every day, he and his staff visit immigrant communities in three counties surrounding Berkeley to talk with day laborers, many of them fathers, about the impacts of sugary drinks. They offer health screenings and dental care. They give out water bottles to encourage healthy habits and let people know they have different, healthier choices. They run an afterschool mentoring program that teaches these same messages to more than 30 kids a day. Parents are welcome too and often attend the workshops on sugary drinks.
“It’s really nice to see little kids who are already saying ‘I’m not going to drink that soda because it’s not good for me. Or ‘I went to a quinceanera this weekend, and we are drinking soda but I didn’t want any, I just had water.’ It’s cool to see them make that change. And the moms, they are there, and they are listening and they aren’t packing that sugary drink for their child for school anymore.”
Learn more about Berkeley’s sugary drink tax revenue program at www.thepraxisproject.org/ssb.
Published October 14, 2020
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All photography, courtesy of the Praxis Project.