The Food Bank says no to donated soda, votes YES on beverage tax

August 29, 2016

In 2014, the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank officially drove out the last can of soda from our inventory. For the past decade, we have steadily reduced the amount of soda we receive.

Readers may wonder how soda ever found its way into the Food Bank inventory. Rest assured, food drive participants weren’t placing two-liters in the collection bins. Soda comes to food banks by way of mixed truckloads donated by food manufacturers and other food banks. For instance, two pallets of soda might be stacked in the back of an 18-wheeler of donated cereal.

Limited options and new resources

In the late ‘80s, our ability to source food – any food – was very limited, and we filled our small warehouse with whatever the market would bear. We reasoned that people were hungry and they could use the calories, even if the nutritional content of the donated product wouldn’t make a doctor proud. And the market offered us plenty of processed snacks – and sugary beverages.But over time, our priorities have shifted. The Food Bank is no longer a source of emergency food but a source of weekly nutrition for our city’s most vulnerable residents. It’s up to us, at the Food Bank, to not only provide food, but provide healthy food to the people we serve. Accordingly, more than 60 percent of our current distribution is fresh fruits and vegetables.

“In just about all of our communities now, we have pockets of need,” Bacho said.

The cost to public health

Everything has a cost, even donated soda. There’s a cost for storing product and a cost for delivering it to our pantries. Making room for a pallet of soda in our warehouse reduces the storage space available for healthier foods. But most importantly, while soda and snacks may enter our inventory as a free donation, there are long-term costs to our program participants’ health that far exceed any temporary infusion of calories.

We’ve learned from public health experts to pay attention to that cost. These days, we know all too well that low-income households are surrounded by unhealthy food choices and struggle to afford more nutritious options. Some live in food deserts, places where potato chips are the freshest vegetable to be found. For others, their budgets severely limit their food selection to choices that produce the most calories for the fewest dollars.

“You’d think you’d see it all the time, but you don’t,” said Goldie Pyka, spokeswoman for the Food Bank. “You pass someone on the street, they don’t wear T-shirts saying they are hungry. But they are. And there are so many different types of people in need.”

If our participants pay the price with their health, there’s no such thing as free soda

Ending hunger is about more than making sure people have enough calories.

The sugary beverage tax measure is expected to decrease consumption of sugary beverages between 20 to 31 percent and generate revenue of about $35-54 million a year. This revenue is intended to fund programs that restore community health. Some dollars will be used to provide healthy food to low-income San Franciscans. Other revenues will fund local improvements in school nutrition, nutritional education and recreational opportunities.

The Food Bank is passionate about increasing access to healthy food and nutrition education, and we support policy efforts to discourage consumption of sugary beverages. The Food Bank votes “yes” on the proposed soda tax.