Taking on Big Soda was the latest in a virtual event series that provides Solid Ground volunteers a space to learn about and discuss various barriers to accessing healthy, nutritious, and culturally relevant food options.
On Wednesday, July 28, the Community Food Education (CFE) team facilitated an event exploring how the soda industry targets kids, people living in poverty, and particularly Black and Latino youth and communities. The beverages we drink have a large impact on the health of our bodies and our communities. Companies spend billions of dollars each year targeting advertisements for soda, energy drinks, and other sugary beverages toward kids and communities of color – while lobbying against health bills that aim to reduce soda consumption or improve diet.
An abundance of sugar
It’s important to understand that sugar is not a bad substance to consume. It’s a tried-and-true way to flavor food and drinks, dating back to 10,000 B.C. in forms like honey from beehives, maple syrup from trees, and agave nectar from cacti. However, the systemic production of sugar, and the companies and other institutions that support it, have demonstrated a history of exploiting sugar field workers and consumers for profit.
Sugar plantations have existed globally for centuries, affecting slave trades in Brazil, the Mediterranean, the West Indies, Europe, and the U.S. As the demand for sugar went up and became more popular than alcohol, the reliance on slavery to produce it and keep costs down also increased.
Sugar production was one of the key elements of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, with British and French enslavers bringing African and West Indian captives to the U.S. – particularly Louisiana – to grow, harvest, and process sugar. As more and more countries reacted to anti-slavery protests and strikes, governments started to enact sugar worker protections while continuing to support the expansion of the sugar industry throughout the 20th century.
Today the U.S. makes about 9 million tons of sugar annually. The U.S. government uses taxpayer money to provide almost $4 billion annually in subsidies for a variety of sugar crops, including corn syrup, sugar beets, and sugar cane, making sugar and products like soda cheaper to buy than they actually cost to make.
Sugar’s impact on health
There’s a direct link between that history of colonization and diet-related illnesses we experience today. Sugar is connected to higher rates of diet-related illnesses like type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and cardiovascular disease, as well as other health problems such as tooth decay, cancer, and behavioral problems. Poor and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other people of color) communities are disproportionately affected by these conditions.
In the last virtual learning event, the CFE team facilitated discussions on the intersections of diet culture, food, and colonialism. There, they discussed their decision to not rely on obesity as an indicator of health. Weight is not an accurate predictor of health, and fatphobia and discrimination against people in bigger bodies is linked to racism and other types of oppression.
Targeting Black and Latino youth
The Coca-Cola Company spent $4.3 billion on global marketing in 2019, with $1 billion of that in the U.S. alone. A lot of the advertising is targeted specifically toward communities of color and youth. Black youth, for example, are exposed to 80-90% more television commercials for sugary drinks than white youth, and fast food ads are more common on Spanish-language than English television. The beverage industry overwhelms youth spaces (schools, community centers, events, neighborhoods, and social media) with marketing.
Like many food and beverage corporations, both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have dedicated marketing divisions that market to Black and Latino communities year round. Big Soda brands give millions of dollars in sponsorship deals to athletes and celebrities such as Beyoncé, Selena Gomez, and LeBron James for commercials that attract Black and Latino youth. BIPOC youth are developed as a sales demographic by enlisting prominent performers deemed “trendsetters” to send the message that youth can be just as creative, athletic, and successful as these “brand ambassadors” while consuming soda.
Here are just a few examples:
- Lebron James Sprite commercial w/ Lil Yachty (2016)
- Lebron James Sprite commercial (2018)
- Drake Sprite commercial highlighting creativity (2010)
- Sprite to help you reach your dreams (2021)
In addition to this messaging, big soda brands fund youth programs, grants, scholarships, and other initiatives in communities of color, in philanthropic efforts that give them prime placement opportunities and ultimately build and reinforce brand loyalty.
For more information on BIPOC relationships to sugar:
- D.C. artist Te Speight uses spoken word poetry to expose the aggressive marketing of the sugary drink industry to communities of color, and inspires actions to reduce consumption and reclaim community health.
- The Impact of Sugary Drinks on Communities of Color: Presentations from the National Soda Summit examining diabetes, targeted marketing, funding relationships with the sugar industry, and community responses.
- Home Flavored from Real Food Media is a powerful and poignant portrait of a Latino American family by award-winning Youth Speaks poet Monica Mendoza. Mendoza tells the haunting story of how corporations continue to colonize the bodies of her culture and how we can return to our roots.
Community organizers all over the world have been standing up to Big Soda and working to reclaim and rebuild community-based food systems. Colonization and corporate influences flood communities with unhealthy products while simultaneously shaming cultural foods and manipulating our natural desire for connection, love, and identity, through advertising.
Many activists, especially in Black, Latino, and Indigenous communities, are working to “decolonize the diet,” building food systems that are healthier, rooted in justice, more ecologically sound, and honor our cultures so our values are reflected in our everyday lives. Big Soda is big, but people power is stronger!
Grassroots pressure and powerful coalition-building by many groups is ongoing. Got Green is a South Seattle-based grassroots example of this. Led by people of color and low-income people, Got Green worked for years organizing, door knocking, phone banking, educating, and testifying to establish Seattle’s Sugary Beverage Tax passed in 2017. Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, PA, Boulder, CO, and Washington D.C. have also passed a sugary-drinks tax. The Navajo Nation also imposes a tax on sweetened beverages and snacks high in salt, saturated fat, and sugar.
The year after Seattle’s tax on sweetened beverages took effect, many Seattleites consumed significantly fewer sugary drinks, with a 36% drop in taxed beverage consumption for children and a 33% drop in consumption for adults. ~University of Washington School of Public Health
The tax works differently in different cities, with most cities charging the distributors of the sweetened beverages a tax of a certain amount per ounce. In Seattle, a 20-ounce bottle of soda would be taxed $0.35. Most distributors choose to pass on the cost to the store, and the store chooses to pass on to the consumer.
Seattle was the first city to have the tax revenue invested in food security programs such as Solid Ground’s Hunger and Food Resources programs, Market Match, Produce Match (formerly called Fresh Bucks), and emergency food programs during the COVID-19 pandemic! In the first year, 2018, Seattle collected about $22.3 million in sweetened beverage tax revenue, which is about $7.4 million more than initially projected!
A study from the University of Washington shows that the year after Seattle’s tax on sweetened beverages took effect, many Seattleites consumed significantly fewer sugary drinks, with a 36% drop in taxed beverage consumption for children and a 33% drop in consumption for adults. (See Lower-income Seattle residents consuming fewer sugary drinks by Jeff Hodson, University of Washington School of Public Health, 4/15/20)
A 10% fruit and veggie subsidy would result in more than 150,000 “preventable or postponed” deaths due to cardiovascular disease by 2030. ~National Institutes of Health
But the soda taxes have also been criticized as regressive, since they hit people with low incomes the hardest. Drinks like sodas and energy drinks are included in the tax, but beverages like diet sodas, Frappuccinos, and sweetened dairy beverages are not, which can be seen as racist and classist. Lower-income communities both pay disproportionately more money under the tax and receive more back in the form of programs funded through the tax. This has led to some disagreement among the communities most harmed by Big Soda, which are at the heart of efforts to tax sweetened beverages.
Some advocates have also called for sugar industry subsidies to be diverted to fruits and vegetables producers instead. A study from the National Institutes of Health shows that a 10% fruit and veggie subsidy would result in more than 150,000 “preventable or postponed” deaths due to cardiovascular disease by 2030! (See Fruit and vegetable subsidies may work five times better than soda taxes by H. Claire Brown, The Counter, 6.13.17)
Soda sales in the past two decades have dropped more than 25% after a huge rise from the 1960s to 1990s. Big Soda is on the defense; between 2009 and 2016, Big Soda spent ~$67 billion to fight soda taxes in the U.S. Big Soda lobbyists hire mostly BIPOC employees to canvas against the soda tax. Big Soda corporations also fund groups, like the Center for Consumer Freedom, which are devoted to discrediting and intimidating public health campaigners and blocking regulation.
In 2016, the American Beverage Association sought an injunction to prevent the city of San Francisco from going forward with an ordinance requiring that sugar-sweetened drink ads on billboards and bus shelters display a health warning. The injunction was denied in U.S. District Court.
In Mexico, one week after announcing the launch of a soda campaign, the phones of prominent advocates were hacked with surveillance spyware, raising new questions about the beverage industry’s tactics to advance its interest around the world.
Coca-Cola has been accused of pumping money into misleading health research. In 2016, the FDA announced that Americans should eat and drink no more than 50 grams of sugar – roughly the amount in a can and a half of Coke – each day. In response, the American Beverage Association invested millions of dollars fighting laws to tax and label sugary beverages.
Sugar processing labor camps in Haiti and the Dominican Republic also still have modern slave conditions where workers grow and harvest sugar cane under the watch of armed guards. The practice of ‘paying’ sugar field workers less than $1 a day – often in company scrip, a currency that can only be used in stores owned by the employers – is akin to the practice of sharecropping, a tactic that slaveowners used to keep previously enslaved people indebted to them.
Action and next steps
Volunteer and organize!
Check out these organizations and get involved!
Reflect on your own personal relationship with food.
How does the food of our past, present, and future impact our lives? At the event, participants reflected on personal food stories and ways to protect our collective health. How does the food of our past, present, and future impact our lives? You’re invited to fill out “My Food Story” to write a short poem (see activity on p. 5 of our Taking on Big Soda Zine). Watch Monica Mendoza’s Home Flavored video above for inspiration!
Learn more about the history of sugar.
- The Illustrated History of How Sugar Conquered the World: From rarefied medicine to colonial invader to public health menace, the story of the world’s most influential flavor, by Kristy Mucci, Saveur food blog, 1/9/17
- The Barbaric History of Sugar in America by Khalil Gibran Muhammmad, The New York Times, 8/14/19
Brainstorm with your friends and family.
Some conversation prompts:
- What can we do in our daily lives to challenge Big Soda and corporate control over the food system to build healthier communities?
- What changes can we realistically make that will improve our health and make our communities stronger?
- What practical steps can I take to work toward a healthier food system in my community?
- What is my commitment to building a healthier food system for everyone, beyond my own family and community?
We encourage you to share your commitment on social media by tagging us at @solid_ground_wa and using the hashtags: #TakingOnBigSoda #MeetBasicNeeds #NurtureSuccess and #SpreadChange.