Mr. Wilks strides onstage, a 12-ounce bottle of Coca Cola in hand. The bottle fizzes as he cracks open the seal. He takes a gulp. “Man, that’s good.”
Between swigs of soda, he tells an audience his family has been in Richmond since the beginning. His grandparents were shipbuilders during WWII. His grandfather went to work at Chevron. His parents were teachers and “community folks,” and now he’s a teacher at Richmond High.
Actually, Wilks isn’t a teacher; he’s an actor and his character is an amalgam of perspectives representing the people of Richmond’s take on a soda tax. “A Soda in Richmond,” staged in February at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts, was sponsored by The California Endowment, a private health foundation, to serve as a conversation starter: While Richmond voters may have voted down Measure N, there’s a lingering focus on health education and the link between obesity and highly sugared drinks.
Wilks takes another sip of Coke and looks at the bottle. “This type of beverage here became the focus of some … issues last year. Some people started talking about making a ‘healthy Richmond,’” he says. “Some people wanted to add a tax to sodas, to sweetened drinks. We became national news. The soda companies spent millions to fight the tax, of course. And I mean millions. Who knows what real good that money could have gone to, how much else that money could have bought in this city? But, you know, that’s politics. Some people fought the tax, some people really wanted it, some people didn’t much care, and some people just wanted to drink whatever they want in peace.”
Two of Wilks’ “students” enter from rows of foldup chairs arranged in the high-ceilinged auditorium. “While the soda tax did not pass, I had to ask myself, and my students, can a soda represent what is healthy or unhealthy, truly, in this city of so many, many complex situations? What is a healthy Richmond?” he continues.
The idea of a soda tax as a weapon against obesity is no longer just local community theater—it’s graduated to the State House. On February 22, a state senator from the Central Coast introduced a proposal for a statewide penny-per-ounce tax on sugary soda, energy drinks and sports drinks, not unlike the measure defeated by Richmond voters in November. The additional 12 cents attached to a bottle of soda would even go toward funding anti-obesity and physical education programs.
Senator Bill Monning (D-Carmel) authored the bill, known as SB 622, encouraged by the results of a recent California Field Poll, which shows 68 percent of California voters support a tax on sugared beverages if it benefits school nutrition and physical education.
“A recent Field Poll demonstrates to me that Californians are ready to address the issue of childhood obesity when it is linked to improving school nutrition and expanding physical activity,” Monning said in a statement. “My bill not only achieves these goals, but also makes consumers think twice about their beverage choices and about their overall nutrition and health.”
Monning’s bill would require a two-thirds vote from each house of the state legislature to pass.
Jeff Ritterman, the former Richmond city councilman who authored Measure N, has been friends with Monning since the 1980s and said he had encouraged the senator to introduce the tax. Ritterman says the science showing that soda is a leading cause of obesity is piling up, and that he believes a statewide tax stands a good chance.
“We just need to continue to educate the public. It’s no slam dunk,” Ritterman said. “A lot of people are now aware of the obesity epidemic and the state really could use the money [to invest] in the health of our children. That’s what we all care about, our children, right?”
But the poll results also reflect a strong initial opposition to a soda tax. Only 40 percent of respondents said they would support a tax as a means of combating the obesity epidemic. Voters responded in support of a tax when asked a follow-up question that linked the tax with increased school nutrition and P.E. funding.
The nonpartisan polling firm Field Research conducts the Field Poll annually, but the soda tax and obesity questions were sponsored by The California Endowment, the foundation that also sponsored “A Soda in Richmond.” Every year, the foundation pays the Field Poll to include questions in its annual survey. This year, questions were designed to gauge California voters’ opinions on taxing sugar sweetened beverages in light of Measure N in Richmond and a similar measure in El Monte, Calif.
“We have a deep interest in what voters think about obesity prevention,” said George Flores, The California Endowment’s community health program manager.
As a health foundation, the endowment is prohibited from taking a position on legislation under consideration, Flores said.
“I think it’s just an indication that policymakers recognize the will of the public may be changing with the damage sugary beverages is doing to public health,” Flores said. “[We are] committed, however, to educating the public and policymakers about the damage sugary beverages do and to creating resources for a solution to that damage.”
But a spokesman for the American Beverage Association in California said the idea of soda taxes to fight obesity “are political losers and so yesterday.”
“The California Endowment is a leading proponent of soda taxes and its public opinion survey appears to have been designed and promoted to hoodwink the press and lawmakers into thinking there is popular support for taxing sugar-sweetened beverages,” ABA spokesman Chuck Finnie said in a statement. “There isn’t and the survey itself shows that.”
Field Poll researchers took a special sample in Richmond, meaning they surveyed enough voters to draw statistically significant conclusions. The Field Poll results specific to Richmond prove quite similar to the final votes on Measure N and Measure O, the companion bill that would have funneled tax money into sports, nutrition and education programs, among others.
Thirty six percent of Richmond respondents said they support a sugar-sweetened beverage tax, while 60 percent oppose one, according to Field Poll results. In November, Measure N received 33 percent “yes” votes.
In the follow-up question, which specifies that the tax would benefit physical education and school nutrition programs, Richmond respondents’ opinions flipped: 66 percent said yes. While Measure N failed, Measure O received 65 percent “yes” votes.
“Recent elections are the most accurate reflection of the popularity and viability of new taxes on soda and other sugar sweetened beverages,” Finnie said. “In Richmond, one of the most pro-tax cities in the Bay Area, a soda tax lost 2-1. In the Los Angeles County city of El Monte, a soda tax lost 3-1.”
Field Research director Mark DiCamillo stood by the science of the polls. The California Endowment “funded it, but we stand by the research. We wouldn’t put our name on it otherwise,” he said. The California Endowment wrote the questions, but, he said, “we’re ultimately responsible for all the questions that go on the Field Poll.”
The California Endowment is invested in the obesity issue, but is restricted from lobbying by tax codes, foundation managers said. The foundation contracts with the Field Poll to measure public opinion on obesity so they can better contain it, especially in poor areas that are particularly affected by the epidemic, Flores said.
“It’s irrefutable that these calories are unnecessary,” Flores said. “Sugary beverages are heavily marketed … [and] it affects children and poor people.”
In 2010, Richmond was one of 14 cities selected for The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities initiative, a 10-year plan to improve health outcomes for children and youth. Healthy Richmond was developed because of the city’s strong existing social support network, according to the Healthy Richmond community plan.
“The soda tax was the one point in time when this was really front and center, but over the next ten years … we hope the community will really change norms and think about community health,” said Diane Aranda, The California Endowment’s Richmond program manager.
The foundation has funneled about $2 million a year into the project since 2010. The money is funneled through Healthy Richmond and on to its 37 grantees. Their work fits into the framework of Building Healthy Communities’ four priority outcomes related to community health: violence prevention, school improvements, economic development and access to healthcare.
Roxanne Carrillo Garza, the hub manager for Healthy Richmond, described the long list of grantees and their work: Catholic Charities of the East Bay’s Restorative Justice program, working to reduce expulsions and suspensions in Richmond schools; CCISCO and Ceasefire; Urban Tilth’s community gardens and parks. Carillo Garza’s job is to link all these groups together to build partnerships.
Health leaders in Richmond suggested the political debate surrounding Measure N perhaps distracted voters from the goal of education and encouraging youth leadership on the issue. Young people are “the ones being targeted by marketing, sales of the products,” said Carrillo Garza. “Their health education and role will continue to be important.”
“Our mission is to improve the health of all Californians and we interpret that broadly,” Flores said. “We know it doesn’t mean one thing. … [It’s] residents, businesses, government all working together. No one solution will make healthier people, it takes many solutions in many hands.”
Soda, however, is still on the endowment’s radar. The foundation even has a page on its website called “Soda Sucks!”
“At The California Endowment, we think soda sucks … we don’t even think ‘soda’ is the best term to describe these drinks. They’re junk. So we call them ‘junk drinks,’” the page says. “Young people are opting to dunk the junk. They’re standing up for themselves and their health. They want to make their own decisions about what they drink. And not be dictated to by corporations’ billion dollar marketing budgets.”
“A Soda in Richmond” got the audience talking. But the soda tax was really just a bookend to addressing community health concerns.
Onstage, the actor playing Mr. Wilks told his two students and the audience that change starts with asking questions.
“When the soda tax was on the ballot, everyone had their idea about what was healthy here, and everyone knew what was best for everyone else, and how to achieve it,” a young actress playing a student responded. “It seemed to me, to cause more harm than good.”
The last word of the performances, before the room of about 30 people broke into a group discussion, went to Richmond Artists with Talent poets Deandre Evans, who also acted in the play, and Donte Clark.
The pair stood back to back, one dressed in white, one dressed in black trading lines of their soda tax-inspired poem, “I Speak for the People,” written and posted to YouTube weeks before the election.
“This ain’t about a yes or a no on a damn vote,” the two said in unison. “This is for those who don’t know about the soda tax. We have to sacrifice for what’s right. If you have to spend ten extra pennies for a diet cola or a sugary Sprite, then that just is what it is.”
“Look, I just want my people to live,” they each repeated. “Look, I just want my people to live.”
“Look, I just want my people to live. So give.”