Families from Richmond’s African American community testified Monday night to the fight against the health effects of poor diets at a town hall meeting to discuss the city’s proposed tax on sugar sweetened beverages.
The town hall, held in the eastern corner of the Iron Triangle neighborhood at the Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, attracted at least 80 residents and city officials who came to listen to keynote speaker Maya Rockeymoore, a leading public policy scholar based in Washington D.C.
Rockeymoore called on the African American community to take a closer look at its relationship with soda manufacturers and the effects of their products on public health.
“There is no secret that there has been a long and storied relationship between the African American society and the soda industry,” Rockeymoore said. “They engaged in multicultural marketing and helped create a sense of economic and social inclusion at a time when Jim Crow prevailed and there were no opportunities for African Americans.”
Rockeymoore said soda manufacturers had played an important role in creating economic opportunities for African Americans during the civil rights era and were loyal to the community.
“They have been loyal to us and we have repaid their loyalty by becoming loyal consumers, but due to the link between our health concerns and their unhealthy products, the time has come for us to ask whether we love the products they produce more than we love ourselves,” Rockeymoore said, to applause.
“It’s time for a different relationship based on respect for the sanctity and value of life,” she added. “We face a systemic problem and we need to leverage public policy, that is why the efforts in Richmond have gained attention.”
Rockeymoore told the story of how she had fought obesity growing up, before she dumped all sugar-sweetened beverages and lost weight.
“I had been among the 80 percent of African American women who are considered to be obese. I used to be over 200 pounds, I was addicted to soda,” she said. “It will be a mistake to think about the obesity crisis in strictly personal terms because it is systematic, we are surrounded all the time by an environment in which unhealthy drinks are advertised. We are living in our own version of the matrix in which a manufactured version of reality is killing us.”
Rockeymoore told the crowd at the town hall that her father, a diabetic, had refused to take insulin treatments. There was a moment of silence, and she broke into tears.
“I am not here to tell Richmond residents how to vote but I would like to tell residents to commit themselves to finding solutions to this issue no matter what happens next week,” Rockeymoore said. “It would be a tragedy if a single vote becomes the end of this conversation, no matter where you live or your background.”
Chuck Finnie, the vice president of media and communications at political consulting firm Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst, Lauter and Partners, was the only person in the room with a No On N button, and he sat quietly. Finnie has spearheaded the campaign against Measure N in Richmond through the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, and said the measure had started a debate that should continue beyond the election.
“There’s nothing she said that I would disagree with,” Finnie said. “It is the beginning of a discourse, and the parties involved have a responsibility to not just walk away after the election.”
Among the city officials who attended the event was Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. McLaughlin wore a Yes On N button and spoke of how her diet as a child was dominated by sodas, which she said were then advertised as “the real thing.”
“I grew up drinking soda drinks for lunch and dinner. It is empty calories, it’s poison to our system,” McLaughlin said. “We have to start somewhere, we have to start making a dent.”
McLaughlin said the City Council would bring legislation specifying that every cent collected in revenue from the measure would go towards efforts to reduce childhood obesity.
“This has been distorted by big soda corporations that are plastering our city with billboards because they have profits to lose, we have something to gain,” she said.
Councilmember Jovanka Beckles called on residents to vote in support of the measure, saying claims by the measure’s opponents that it would hurt the poor ignored the long term effects of unhealthy diets.
“What affects us most is diabetes,” Beckles said. “It is worse than paying an extra 20 cents a day for a can of soda, and heart attacks, that’s even worse.”
Speaking afterward, Richmond resident Brother Rich Riles said he and his family had stopped drinking soda in the 1980s. “We got off all of the sodas in the ‘80s,” he said. “This measure will help a bunch of people stop, and these words” – Rockeymoore’s speech – “need to be heard,” he said.
Richmond resident Felix Hunziker brought a bottle of 100 percent fruit juice with fruit juice concentrates to the town hall.
“This will be taxed, but why? This is not the culprit behind obesity,” Hunziker said outside the church. “I totally respect what Jeff [Ritterman] is trying to do, but a lot of people don’t understand what will be taxed and what will not.”
Ritterman, who was the master of ceremonies, said that although residents were divided over the measure, it was important to note the progress the city has made in implementing reforms since the last election.
“I know it’s an election year and everything is polarized, but we have moved everything forward,” Ritterman said. “Let’s remember how far we have come and celebrate that.”