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Should Boston have a junk food tax? Here’s what the candidates for mayor said

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As the race of Boston’s next mayor picks up, the list of questions Boston residents have for the candidates just keeps growing.

We asked readers to submit their questions for the mayoral candidates, and they sent in questions spanning topics like education, housing, climate change, and more. Our reporters spoke with each candidate City Councilors Michelle Wu, Andrea Campbell, and Annissa Essaibi George, former city economic development chief John Barros, and Acting Mayor Kim Janey and got their answers.

One reader wanted to hear how the candidates would address the issue of food injustice in Boston neighborhoods. The pandemic led to a 55 percent rise in food insecurity in the Commonwealth from 2019 to 2020, according to a survey by the Greater Boston Food Bank.

For those struggling with getting enough food, access to healthy food is an even harder challenge. In some Boston neighborhoods like East Boston, it can be difficult to find grocery stores with a variety of healthy options.

In Massachusetts, candy and soda are exempt from the state’s 6.25 percent sales tax because they’re considered food. Former governor Deval Patrick once considered a junk food tax, but it never became a reality in the state.

Is it time to reconsider a junk food tax in Boston? We asked the candidates for mayor a reader-submitted question about whether or not their administration would support a junk food tax. They told us their stance, and how they think Boston should address food injustice more broadly.

These responses have been edited for length and clarity.

“Food injustice is driving an obesity and mental health crisis in our Black and brown communities. Junk food is cheap and easy to access while nutrient-dense, quality food is hard to find in our neighborhoods. Would you consider a soda or junk food tax to help invest in neighborhood farms, fitness and mental health facilities, and outdoor playgrounds?” — Brian, East Boston

Michelle Wu: I’ve put out a food justice plan actually … a little under a year ago at this point to emphasize that food justice should be at the heart of our recovery. The very first impacts, the most visible reminders of the pandemic, were all food related: empty grocery store shelves and food workers who had lost their jobs, and food insecurity and hunger across our communities. And this is very much about connecting health and well being and climate to economic opportunity, and the huge potential to create jobs in this space that serve our communities.

The City of Boston’s revenue raising authority is limited compared to other cities, so in fact we would not be able to. Unlike other cities that have done this, we wouldn’t be able to implement this on our own. I think it’s important to have conversations that will go through the state Legislature about generating the funds to address the impacts of our issues. So I’m happy to explore ways that we can better match the impacts of corporatized action and the push towards commercialization and unhealthy food choices, with the day-to-day impacts in our communities.

But there are many, many other policy options that we have, and I’ve laid out a number of them in our plan. It’s everything from connecting our local restaurants and food businesses with the resources to address our gaps in food assistance and hunger. It’s coordinating farmers’ markets across the city to ensure that there’s local access to fresh food that is also affordable, and removing any barriers to using SNAP and SNAP dollars and public support for that.

And it’s also ensuring that as we are thinking about our food systems, every action from city government and from our institutional partners can push towards driving that opportunity and health and sustainability through our food systems. So I think I referred maybe last time we talked to the food justice ordinance that I had authored and passed in 2019, which attached requirements for Boston Public Schools food purchasing. We should be expanding that and working with every major institution and city to localize our food production and spending, which also naturally creates healthier options and access to our residents.

Andrea Campbell: I would consider it. And I think it’s, again, a conversation that we would take and engage with every resident to take part in.

I already know that in certain parts of the city, it’s been a topic of discussion … I’m going blank on the name (an aide later confirmed Campbell was referring to the Mattapan Food & Fitness Coalition‘s Neighborhood Health Champions) … but the health champions who are working in partnership with our local bodegas and convenience stores to get them to place the unhealthy food in the back, to put the healthier food in the front, to work on changing prices — I think you can actually get a lot done even before pushing for some of the taxes.

[H]ow does the city of Boston invest in those types of organizations, and these champions, that are in [the] community already doing the work, who are expanding access to farmers markets so they’re all year round, or turning lots into community gardens, creating jobs in the process, [and] creating food co-ops? (I’m a member of the Dorchester one). So this is already happening, it’s just a struggle to get resources from the city, and there’s resources there. We just need to be intentional.

And if we need further resources, this could be one tool that we absolutely should explore.

Annissa Essaibi George: I don’t think we need a tax on junk food. I think we need education. We need to make sure that it is easier than ever for families to get healthy food. We’ve seen again over this last year-and-a-half, it’s amazing what a terrible crisis has demonstrated to us as a city, and as a world, what we can actually do with willpower and making sure that we’re very much focused on farm to table from local farm to local table, making sure that we are supporting, especially our young people, in accessing food. One of the reasons why we delayed closing school last year is because we knew so many of our kids who depend on school meals for nutrition weren’t going to get it, but we quickly figured out how to get them food … [O]ver a quick period of time we said, “OK, we’ve got them food. We’ve got the calories. Now let’s figure out the nutritional value. Let’s make sure that we’re able to get those fresh fruits and vegetables, higher quality meats, the necessary proteins for our families.” That’s where we’ve got to focus our energy. A tax doesn’t do it.

John Barros: So the answer is yes, I do support a tax. But it just can’t be a tax. Why? Because I know how difficult it is to get my kids not to have soda, dammit. I try hard [laughs]. You should see the snacks, right? I know the issues around it, but that’s cheap food for a lot of people. It’s food that they can buy, that they can afford for their kid. And so we’re taxing the poor, because that’s who buys it.

If there’s going to be a tax, then we’ve got to figure out who’s paying that tax, and we know who’s paying that tax actually. We’ve got to figure out what we’re doing to help as we get rid of the options in schools, as we get rid of the options in camps, as we get rid of the options in different places, and then increase healthy food options.

So maybe that tax is paying for more healthy food options. I know one of the things we did in our neighborhood was work with the different bodegas to make sure they had healthy foods and accessible food. It doesn’t move as fast. It doesn’t make as much money. It’s harder to keep.

So I wonder if we can offset the cost from one to the other, so we are in some way making it easier for the same poor Black and brown folks to have healthy foods. So I’m for the tax … because I want to make it that the food is not cheap. We probably couldn’t tax it as high as I’d like to tax it [laughs]. But I want to because one of the things is it’s a cheap alternative. And we’ve got to create cheaper alternatives. That’s the biggest thing for me. Let’s take that tax money, let’s subsidize something that’s cheaper, that we could put next to these things or instead of these things, and keep it moving.

Kim Janey: That’s a great question. I would say this: The reader is absolutely right in his analysis. And I, as someone who’s experienced food insecurity, know what it’s like to depend on corner stores and sub shops, literally, for like my primary meals as part of my childhood. Absolutely right.

I also live near a supermarket. It’s now … Price Rite but it used to be Save A Lot, and in Save A Lot, there was no juice. They had literally no real juice in the store, the supermarket. It was ‘drink,’ which is water, sugar, and food coloring. Not one option was real. So it’s a real issue.

I have invested more money into our food access department here in the City of Boston. I’m a big proponent of community gardens. I, you know, consider myself — well, I used to be an urban farmer. I haven’t had much time for that, but I want us to do much more investment in community gardens, not just ones that exist, but using some of our public land to create more community gardens and involve kids as well all the way up to our seniors in that work.

Editor’s note: Candidates for mayor of Boston will compete in a preliminary election Tuesday, Sept. 14, with the top two finishers facing off in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 2.

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