SFUSD backs supervisors’ sugary beverage tax, with concerns

Supervisors Mar and Wiener listen to advocate Roberto Vargas defend their sugary beverages tax to the Board of Education
Photo by Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

A San Francisco ballot initiative to levy a tax on sugary beverages got a boost last night as the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education voted 5-2 to endorse it.

“The school district has done amazing work around nutrition for kids,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, one of the initiative’s authors, shortly after the meeting. “This is a big win.” 

The initiative is proposed by Supervisors Mar, Wiener, Cohen and Avalos, and is estimated to generate up to $31 million annually, according to data from the supervisors, but its main aim is to curb the consumption of beverages they believe contributes to obesity in San Franciscans. The supervisors will be introducing a final, unified measure at the Board of Supervisors in the coming weeks, they said. 

Advocates at the meeting said sugary drinks contribute to a crisis in children’s health. “Our community suffers some of the highest rates of diabetes and hospitalizations from diabetes,” said Roberto Vargas, a Bayview resident and Mission high graduate of 1989. “I ask you to support these policies for San Francisco’s children, and San Francisco’s families.”

The resolution to support the tax initiative passed, but not easily. The ensuing argument may even have given a peek inside the mayor’s insecurities around the upcoming November ballot.

Commissioner Hydra Mendoza McDonald, who works in the Mayor’s Office as his education advisor, thought backing the “soda tax” could put a ballot initiative regarding SFUSD funding in jeopardy. 

“I don’t have a political or personal agenda, but I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t think this would be a political fight,” Mendoza McDonald said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Supervisor Wiener… but I have to say my priority right now is the public education enrichment fund, and that’s it.”

She’s referring to the city’s supplemental funding to the school district, PEEF, which the SFUSD depends on to pay for over 50 librarians, 200 PE coaches and more. That fund is about to sunset in 2015 -- meaning no more money for the SFUSD from the city. In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the city is set to provide the SFUSD over $50 million.

A ballot initiative is slated for November that would renew the PEEF funding agreement. That’s a lot of money at stake. 

Mendoza McDonald expressed fear that support of the soda tax would put the SFUSD in the crosshairs of Wiener and Mar’s deep-pocketed opponents, the beverage industry. 

“It makes me nervous,” she said. “It’s in everyone’s mind a slam dunk to pass the (PEEF funding initiative)...People have voted time and time again for children’s issues. But in every single measure, we’ve cleared the field and made sure we haven’t had any opposition, and that’s what makes us successful. I’m worried if the people who have historically supported us would do so again knowing there’s a bigger pot of money going against us.”

This 13 minute audio recording features some of the main arguments made against backing the sugary beverages tax initative. 

The board then asked Wiener to respond.

“If I could be blunt, the arguments that I’m hearing from people not comfortable supporting this are going to be the same in June as they are today,” Wiener said. “The idea that this would generate a campaign against the Children’s Fund and PEEF, has no basis, with respect. This is about the sugary beverage industry.”

“In San Francisco we don’t shy away from big business trying to threaten us,” he added.

Ultimately the board voted to back the sugary beverage tax initiative. Its reasons were many. Some commissioners described the early onset of puberty children are facing due to the effects of sugary drinks, others brought up the growing rates of obesity in children. 

They all echoed the sentiment that the benefits of supporting the resolution outweighed the risks. Commissioner Rachel Norton probably echoed their myriad positions most succinctly. 

“I have no idea whether this legislation will ultimately pass at the ballot box, but I think what’s important is that we support this resolution,” she said. “This is the right thing to do, and be fearless about.”