Berkeley became the first city in the country to levy a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages when voters passed  Measure D, the so-called Soda Tax, in November 2014. Photo: Vox Efx

Social advocates sang, strummed ukuleles, shook noisemakers, chanted, and pumped fists while exalting Berkeley’s groundbreaking soda tax Monday night, saying 2014’s Measure D is doing its job in lowering the city’s consumption of sugary drinks, while helping educate it about healthy alternatives.

The celebration was held at the Berkeley YMCA Teen Center, marking nearly five years since residents launched the Measure D campaign. It made Berkeley the first city in the United States to tax sugary drinks, which scientists say are one of the leading causes of obesity and diabetes. Measure D levied a one-cent per ounce tax on soda sold within its city limits.

In the nearly four years since it was enacted, several cities in the country have followed Berkeley’s lead, including Oakland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland, and Boulder.

Though critics said the results of the tax wouldn’t be obvious due to Berkeley’s relatively small population, the effort nevertheless gained support from nationally known figures like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Clinton’s former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who’s been a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley since 2006. It passed with 76% of the vote.

A 2017 study by Oakland-based Public Health Institute and the University of North Carolina said the tax prompted a 10% drop in citywide soda consumption during the first year of its existence while driving up sales of healthier drinks like water and milk. A 2016 UC Berkeley study showed a 21% drop in sugary beverage consumption in what it considered low-income neighborhoods.

Statistics gave way to storytelling and back-patting Monday. After showing a 12-minute film about the campaign, Berkeley vs. Big Soda, by Helen De Michiel, members of various health advocacy groups led the room in chanting and singing, demonstrating the campaign – though years past its passage – is anything but over.

“Who knew?” said Joy Moore, a co-founder of the Berkeley Food Policy Council, to a room of more than 50 people. “We knew. Education is what makes Berkeley different.”

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Local agency officials updated the community on what they’re spending the funds on, and what the future holds.

The tax revenue is administered by Healthy Berkeley, which was created in 2016 and has sent $1,287,500 to seven community-based programs across six local organizations during its first fiscal year, from July 2016 to June 2017, according to the Healthy Berkeley website. Since the tax’s imposition in 2015 through June 30, the city has collected about $5 million, according to the website.

Dr. Vicki Alexander from Healthy Black Families, the co-chair of the Yes on D campaign, led a chant of “the people united will never be divided.” She also told the crowd to pay attention to how the city spends the soda tax money in the future.

“I think it’s really important to watch what the (city) council does,” Alexander said, adding that the city manager also merits scrutiny.

Berkeley Unified School District received $637,500 during the 2016-2017 fiscal year. Jezra Thompson of the district’s gardening and cooking program said the funding allowed more than 1,000 students in 17 schools to help plant – and eat – fresh produce from school gardens while learning skills like how to read food labels. Six family events in 2018 helped educate and feed 194 families.

“A garden is a magical place,” Thompson said. “It’s great that kids are able to see it develop over the year … we know that they’re going to eat the food at least once, and they’ll probably ask for seconds.”

Myisha Kemp of the Ecology Center, which received $115,266 the first year, told the crowd just one sugary drink a day will substantially increase a person’s chance of getting Type 2 diabetes. Her colleague Giuliana Blasi said the soda tax will help “transform the food and beverage culture, particularly Berkeley High School.” She said funds from the soda tax have allowed the group to provide incoming BHS ninth graders with 2,500 reusable water bottles. They’ve also developed an off-campus healthy meal guide for students.

Ajura Smith from the Berkeley non-profit Healthy Black Families, which received $245,874, said the tax has helped mobilize her group to give tours of the Berkeley Farmers Market and offer classes in healthy meal preparation and shopping.

“We talk about obesity and diabetes, and really make it real,” she said.

Among the group’s programs, it offers a “$10 shopping challenge,” showing residents how to buy a meal for a family of four on a $10 budget.

“Our goal is to get the word out to them and let them go out and influence their friends and families,” Smith said. “They’re changing what their drinks are and what they’re eating, based on our classes. It’s a gradual progression, but we are effecting change.”

Kevin Williams of Berkeley Youth Alternatives, which received $125,000, discussed the group’s “urban gardens,” where he said kids with “a lot of issues” learn about the benefits of growing and eating their own food. He said soda tax money goes to teen nutrition programs, event interns, anti-soda campaigns, fresh juice tastings, community garden events, social networking, and nutritional beverage alternatives at community events.

“If they can control their health, they’ll do a lot better in school,” Williams said.

Tracy Rogers from the YMCA’s Diabetes Health Prevention Program, which received $51,360, said “a lot of people have never looked at a label before. A lot of people didn’t know why you would drink water instead of soda.”

Natalie Bernal and Anna-Maria Violich-Olivier from the YMCA’s Head Start program, which received $100,000, sang a song and showed off their “Potter the Otter” puppet they use in healthy eating programs for kids. They said the soda tax has helped fund education and activities for about 700 children from 46 classrooms, focusing on drinking water, nutrition, exercise, dental health, and social/emotional health.

“The kids ask ‘What if the adults in my life say (drinking soda) is OK,’ said Violich-Olivier. “We say ‘Well, teach them this song.’”

Lifelong Medical Care got $100,000 in grants from Healthy Berkeley and redistributed them to smaller community agencies. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

LifeLong Medical Center received $125,000, from which it re-granted $10,000 each to Bay Area Hispanic Institute for Advancement, Community Adolescents Nutrition Fitness, Community Child Care Council of Alameda County, Inter-City Services, Multicultural Institute, Options Recovery Services, and Youth Spirit Artwork.

Dechen Tsering, who runs Healthy Berkeley, said the battle isn’t over.

“As the beverage industry continues to fight this with millions of dollars, we are able to fight back with the power of the people,” she said. “We are the movers and the shakers in this country. This country is looking and following us.”

While Berkeley’s soda tax seemed to inspire similar moves across the country, it won’t be spreading into other areas of California anytime soon. The state banned new soda taxes for 13 years in 2018, heading off a statewide ballot measure financed by the soda industry that would have required a two-thirds majority vote for municipalities or the state to pass new taxes. Lawmakers reluctantly passed the ban, in exchange for the soda industry’s agreeing to drop its efforts. The ban doesn’t affect soda taxes in San Francisco, Oakland, or Albany. Cities that were considering soda taxes, including Richmond and Sacramento, now have to wait until 2031.

The meeting also served as a way for the city to officially ask for proposals from community-based organizations for soda tax funds during fiscal year 2020 and 2021, to “promote reduction of consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and to address the effects of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption on health.” The deadline for proposals is 5 p.m. February 27. Applications will only be accepted online at For questions, call 650-533-5933 or email

Marissa LaMagna, of the Berkeley Food Policy Council, said the group already has its next target in sight.

“The soda tax is really something to be proud of,” she said. “We need to get healthy foods into the (school) lunches. That’s our next project.”

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Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...