In 2018, three soda companies together spent over $22 million to help pass a misleading ban in Washington on “grocery taxes,” which appeared as Initiative 1634 on the November ballot. Big Soda’s contributions accounted for more than 95 percent of I-1634’s funding. The opposition raised a scant $100,000. The ban passed by 12 percentage points.

Voters in Oregon saw a similar proposal on their ballots this year in Measure 103, but the fight there was not nearly so one-sided: the yes effort raised $6 million while the opposition raised nearly $3.5 million. Even though the opposition was outspent by the yes campaign, the difference was less than 2 to 1, not 200 to 1, as in Washington. Voters in Oregon rejected the ban proposal by a 14-point margin.

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

The language of each proposal broadly referenced groceries, though both states already ban taxes on most food. In reality, a few soda companies predominantly funded both efforts in a play to prevent future taxes on their products. Coca Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr. Pepper Snapple Group Inc. together poured over $25 million into bankrolling the two campaigns, apparently mindful of the mounting evidence that taxes on soda can effectively reduce consumption.

In so doing, price signals could offer progressive public health benefits, likely reducing rates of obesity, type two diabetes, and fatty liver disease, all of which disproportionately impact low-income households. Soda companies contribute to the regressive incidence of these diseases, routinely targeting advertising at low-income shoppers by boosting marketing during food stamp distribution days. Youth of color also receive disproportionate exposure to Big Soda’s marketing; Black youth see twice as many soda ads compared with white youth, regardless of income. Sugary beverage taxes could help combat the rising rates of these debilitating diseases.

What happened in Washington?

Washington likely attracted special attention from Big Soda when Seattle passed its 2017 sweetened beverage tax, levying nearly a two-cent tax per fluid ounce on most soft drinks and other high sugar beverages sold in the city. Big Soda’s $22-million deluge to ensure other Evergreen State jurisdictions couldn’t follow suit made I-1634 one of the best funded initiative campaigns in the state’s history. (Though even Big Soda trailed the money deluge from Big Oil in the state’s carbon tax initiative, also on the ballot this year.) But why was opposition in Washington so weak?

Opposition to the ban in Oregon was not massive, but the No campaign raised significantly more than Washington’s was able to muster. Upwards of 150 Oregon-based organizations and businesses raised some $800,000 in local contributions, nearly eight times as much funding as Washington’s opposition campaign could pull together. Out-of-state donor Michael Bloomberg and a Texas-based philanthropist, working with the Action Now Initiative, together added an additional $2.6 million to the campaign’s coffers. Both donors have track records of supporting sugary beverage taxes in other states.

It’s unclear why Washington’s no campaign, spearheaded by the Healthy Kids Coalition, didn’t attract major donations from out-of-state philanthropists like Oregon’s did. But that lack support was likely a major reason the campaign struggled to get its message out. In addition to that hurdle, the Healthy Kids Coalition represented fewer than 70 organizations, mostly from the Childhood Obesity Prevention Coalition. Of the $100,000 the coalition raised, nearly three-quarters came from the American Heart Association, underscoring the general lack of local attention to the fight.

Washington needs more food policy leaders

The lack of coalition strength to fight Big Soda in Washington this November is evidence of a much larger problem: Washington lacks a robust network of organizations dedicated to implementing and protecting smart and sustainable food policy in the state. The task of organizing this network used to fall to Food Action, a food policy nonprofit with a 20-year history in the state under its original name, the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network. This year, Food Action ran out of funds and is ceasing operations.

The organization played a critical role organizing partners to collectively advocate for a sustainable food system. The peak of the movement may have come in 2008, when Food Action organized the Good Food Coalition to pass the Local Farms, Healthy Kids Act. With the loss of Food Action, the 20-plus organizations that made up the coalition haven’t had a coordinated advocacy strategy.

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  • In fact, few of Washington’s food organizations engage on policy, and the ones that do have reduced operations. In 2016 Cascade Harvest and Tilth Producers merged to form the Tilth Alliance. Their small policy program has since decreased substantially due to instability in funding. In the past, PCC Community Markets also funded policy efforts. But PCC has been less active since narrowly losing an initiative to label GMO foods.

    It appears that no local funders or organizations have been able to fill the void. In the meantime, a signature gathering effort to repeal Seattle’s soda tax in 2019 is already underway, though the sponsoring committee has yet to report any contributions.

    Washington will need to grow local attention to food policy issues soon if the region is to build a more sustainable food system, one prepared to face the threats to food security and health we are sure to see in the coming decades.

    Ethan Schaffer is a social entrepreneur and co-founder of Viva Farms, a farm incubator that helps farm workers transition to farm ownership. He served on the board of Food Action for five years.