Soda tax funds begin pouring into city coffers

San Francisco public schools could receive soda tax revenue next year for healthier meals, dental services and other programs and nonprofits providing services to low-income communities of color would receive about $5 million, under recommendations released Friday afternoon by a city advisory committee.

The 16-member Sugary Drinks Distributor Tax Advisory Committee was created as part of the soda tax measure approved by voters in November 2016 to help determine how to spend the revenue generated by the one cent levy per ounce of sugary beverage, which went into effect in January.

The tax is meant to discourage the drinking of soda, which is blamed for chronic health problems like diabetes and heart disease that disproportionately impact low-income communities of color. But it also generates revenue for programs intended to promote public health.

The City has estimated it will receive $7.5 million this fiscal year and $15 million next fiscal in soda tax. Some of that money will go to other voter-approved spending requirements and some of it was already allocated through last year’s budget process, leaving about $10 million to allocate for next fiscal year.

“The SDDTAC recommends that funds be directed to support primary and secondary prevention efforts and not for medical treatment of disease,” said the committee’s report to Mayor Mark Farrell and the Board of Supervisors. “This includes work to support: decreasing consumption of sugary drinks, increasing water consumption, oral health, healthy food access, and physical activity.”

The mayor must submit a city budget proposal to the board for review by June 1.

The committee noted that since it began meeting in December it has reviewed many proposals to address the impacts of sugary drinks and they “totaled much more than the committee could allocate.”

Janna Cordeiro, a school district parent advocate and public health consultant who serves on the committee, said the revenue stream can shape an effective strategy around preventing chronic diseases. “The City has the opportunity to do for chronic diseases what we did for HIV,” she said, referring to the successful “Getting to Zero” campaign around combatting new HIV infections.

The committee is recommending that about half the money go to nonprofits for services “that address the health inequities of those most targeted by the beverage industry.” These services would fall into such areas of physical activity like “dance and movement, sports, yoga, walking groups, biking,” education on how to lead healthy lives and food services like food pantries or home delivered meals.

Rita Nguyen, a Chronic Disease Physician Specialist with the Department of Public Health, who serves on the committee, emphasized the decision to fund nonprofit and faith-based groups was meant to empower communities most impacted by soda to effect change. “They know their communities better than anyone,” Nguyen said.

Supervisor Malia Cohen, who pushed for the soda tax and had yet to review the report, said it should “provide a roadmap for the mayor to invest in the reduction of soda consumption, increased access to water and ultimately a reduction in Type 2 diabetes diagnoses for communities of color and working class people with few healthy beverage options in their neighborhoods.”

The committee has recommended $1 million for staffing to measure the effectiveness of the programs funded and collect chronic illness health data.

Another $1 million is recommended for San Francisco Unified School District to improve the quality of school meals. An additional $500,000 would go to the district to provide students with nutrition education. But before the funding is allocated the committee recommends the district submit a detailed proposal for how it will improve school meals and increase awareness of the health hazards of drinking soda.

Cordeiro said students in public school are a priority target population and the funding could make a real difference in preventing chronic illness. “They are like a captive audience,” she said.

The committee recommended $450,000 to fund drinking water projects in both the school district and public spaces. And $1 million for dental services for public school students.

The committee would also like to see $1 million go toward increasing people’s access to fruits and vegetables, such as through vouchers. And it would like $150,000 to go to The City’s Healthy Retail program, which helps corner stores sell fresh fruits and vegetables.

A faith-based group led by Pastor Raynard Hillis of Bayview’s Double Rock Baptist Church recommended to the committee that it provide funding to improve food pantry services in the Bayview along with improved food delivery programs for seniors and those with disabilities, according to committee documents. He also recommended the committee fund restaurant gift cards for homeless residents.

The funding for nonprofits is expected to be offered through a competitive process overseen by the Public Health Department and it would allow groups to pitch new approaches, such as the gift cards.

The recommendations also call for spending $520,000 on the so-called “Peace Parks” effort. The collaboration between Recreation and Parks Department and the Police Department seeks to create safe active spaces at the Herz Clubhouse and Playground in Visitacion Valley, Youngblood Coleman Clubhouse and Playground in Bayview Hunters Point, and the Potrero Hill Recreation Center.

The City does not yet have data on how the soda tax has impacted consumer behavior. The actual amount from the first quarter of soda tax collection won’t be known until April, city officials said.

Co-chair of the committee Roberto Ariel Vargas, a health worker at the University of California, San Francisco, said he hopes City Hall will follow the recommendations, but noted that since the soda tax isn’t a dedicated tax, the money could be used for other purposes.

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