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Crosscurrents logo 2021

The Nanny State: a penny for your soda


If you ride BART to its northwestern terminus, you’ll find yourself at Macdonald Avenue and 19th Street, just a few blocks east of downtown Richmond. Macdonald is a four-lane street lined with restaurants, gas stations, and other retailers. I came here to find out how local business owners feel about the soda tax ballot initiative.

"It will affect all the businesses around here, not only mine," says Adel Moh, owner of La Raza Market and Grocery.  "The purpose of the tax I think, they say, is for the kids not to drink soda. But we are surrounded by other cities. Everybody’s going to go buy it somewhere else.”

Moh and other businesspeople are afraid their profits will fall. While Supporters of the tax say they can focus on selling different products, Moh just doesn’t think it’s the government’s responsibility to tell him what to do.

"I mean, when you raise like a dollar-forty for a 24-pack – I know, I have kids also, and I’m worried about them – but, this thing could be done from home not from the stores," says Moh.

Moh's got a point, but it's not supported by the Institute of Medicine. In a study released in May, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences found that people’s ability to exercise personal choice has been limited by a lack of options and bias “toward the unhealthy end of the spectrum.”

Looking around MacDonald Avenue, there are examples of this everywhere. Fast food joints dot the block. Just a year and a half ago, obesity concerns led California legislators to force chain restaurants to display the calorie counts of their meals. Soon after, the federal government followed suit.

But there are other options around here. A few blocks down the street is Dioniso Harrachia, a manager of La Flor de Jalisco Market. He’s against Richmond's new tax proposition, not because he's concerned over his bottom line or worried about who controls whether or not people drink too much soda.

"I don’t support it because it doesn’t seem like it’ll help much at all, and the money’s probably gonna get lost in the process of all of the paperwork and all that stuff," says Herrachia.

Harrachia's concerns come back to how the proposition is written. If it passes, the money raised by the tax will be sent to the city's general fund, where it will be used at the discretion of the local government. Another ballot measure advises the city to spend the revenue on education and recreation programs. But it's non-bonding, so the money could conceivably go anywhere. Other voters are concerned that, because the tax is regressive, it unfairly discriminates against the poor in Richmond. By taking a larger proportion of their income, it would penalize them for an institutional problem.

Further East on Macdonald, the retail stores begin thinning, making way for housing complexes, churches, a school, and Nicholl Park.

The advisory initiative directs the city to create more parks such as Nicholl – it’s a large plot of land with baseball diamonds, playscapes, and a skate park. That could help change youth culture in Richmond. Every year in Contra Costa County, $404 million in health care costs are attributed to obesity – and the rate of obesity is rising. By 2030, 42 percent of adults in Richmond will be obese, where some studies find over half of all grade school children are obese.

At Nicholl, a teenage skater named Del, who does not share his last name, says he doesn't think the proposition’s proponents have the right take on the obesity issue. 

"They’re doing that wrong, because the way to reduce that obesity is to make healthier foods cheaper, because the fatty foods are not as expensive to buy, because, nobody’s rich in Richmond, really," says Del.

The city of Richmond is tackling that issue as well, recently launching initiatives to distribute more low-cost produce around the city. And it's arguable that raising the price of sugary drinks will point more people toward healthier options. Pablo, a father who doesn't give his last name says he supports taxes and other government programs that could help people get healthier.

"It’s like a cigarette. Before people buy cigarette and then the government say, ‘Okay right now I have too many people with cancer, too many problems, I can’t pay for that, so I need now all the cigarette companies need to pay tax.’ When you buy any case with cigarettes you will be pay tax and that tax we use it to help for the people with cancer or problem from the smoke. So if that one is the same, it’s beautiful. I like it," says Pablo.

Opinions in Richmond are divided over the ever-contentious issue of raising taxes. But what the people of MacDonald Avenue do agree on is that obesity in Richmond is a serious issue. In November, the voters will help decide what role their government will have in the solution.