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Philly Soda Tax Budget Hearings: David & Goliath

May 5, 2016

Our A Child Grows in Philly editor has written about Philly’s proposed soda tax before, but now that the budget hearings have occurred and a vote on the tax is imminent, there is a lot more to say.

Philadelphians can show their support of the soda tax that will help fund the Community Schools initiative, universal Pre-K, libraries and recreation centers, by visiting, calling and emailing their Council Member. For more information on how to advocate for this funding, check out Fair Future Philly, a growing coalition of organizations from all walks of life in Philadelphia, including civic, labor, and faith organizations, multiple community development corporations, and small business owners from throughout the city.

As I rounded the corner to the Visitor’s Entrance at City Hall with my first grader in tow, clutching my carefully crafted remarks for my testimony at the City Council budget hearings yesterday afternoon, I was completely unprepared for what greeted us. Coca-Cola trucks circling, big, burly Teamsters wearing matching t-shirts and buttons, waving signs and yelling, “No Philly Grocery Tax!”, news helicopters flying overheard, police officers out in force, TV cameras and reporters (interviewing only those against the tax, as far as I could tell), and general chaos and mayhem. My six year old stopped in her tracks. “Mommy, why don’t these people want money to go to our schools?” My best, completely inadequate answer was, “it’s complicated.

But the real answer running through my head – my stomach in knots, trying to skirt the throngs of protestors and protect my kid from the burly, chanting, mostly middle-aged men – the one that I couldn’t explain to my daughter, was, “because Capitalism. Because those with the most money often have the loudest voice. Because Big Soda can afford t-shirts and buttons and giant signs and probably paid most of these people to be here.”  And so it was. We approached the entrance and saw two, maybe three young organizers, probably college students, standing mostly alone, holding “Our Kids Are Worth It” signs, looking as nervous and intimidated as my six year old. We pushed on, waited in the long line to get into the building, and walked into an elevator filled with – you guessed it – soda tax protestors. All men, all loud, swaggering, and entitled. I swallowed my anxiety, wrapped my arms around my daughter, and tried to fade into the background until we got to the fourth floor. We stepped off the elevator to more chaos and were finally shuttled into a caucus room across from Council chambers to wait to speak.

When testimony began, it was organized by “pro” and “anti” soda tax panels consisting of 3-5 people at the table, each given their two minutes at the microphone. The anti-soda tax (it’s NOT a GROCERY TAX!) panels consisted primarily of people who work for Coke or Pepsi, but there were a few small business owners as well. One of the most frustrating aspects of much of the testimony was how many times I heard, “Yes, I work for [insert Big Soda Company here], but I’m not here because of my employer…” Most testimony against the soda tax was about how much we’re already taxed on our electric bills, property, sales tax, etc. No one mentioned that choosing to buy sugary soda isn’t exactly a necessity. Businesses discussed how this would affect their bottom line; Big Soda executives talked about how “insane” it was that the Mayor is asking small business owners to pay more and suffer smaller profit margins (since this is a tax at the distributor level, it is worth noting that Big Soda and their monied distributors don’t have to pass this tax on to the small business owner or the consumer, but, who really cares about those details, am I right?).

As for the pro-soda tax panels, they were students, teachers, parents, doctors, nurses, coaches, Parks Department employees, non-profit executives, and the like. None of them wore custom t-shirts. None had been paid to be there. None had been bussed in from outside of the city. But they all spoke passionately and frankly about why this tax is important. Educators discussed the merits of early childhood education. Doctors spoke of treating 15 year old gun shot victims who were high school drop outs with no quality educational options in their neighborhoods. An endocrinologist spoke of the incredible impact sodas and sugary beverages have on the patients she treats for diabetes. A recreation center volunteer spoke of his 25 years working to get kids off the streets and help them find healthy, fulfilling outlets for their intelligence and creativity.

FullSizeRender 3After hearing all this, I was more determined than ever to get my seat on a panel and give my two minutes of testimony in support of the tax. But, after two hours of waiting, I discovered that City Council had cut SIXTY NAMES from the list of soda tax supporters who had registered to testify. SIXTY people who had taken time off from work (and, in my case, brought their husband and young children), arduously prepared their remarks, and put their lives on hold to be at the hearing and speak their minds, were turned away after proceedings had already begun. I watched council staffers confusedly flip through hand written lists, crossing off and adding names. I watched Big Soda executives pushing their way to the front of the line. I watched my opportunity (and the opportunity of 59 others) to speak up for my children, my community, my schools, my libraries, my recreation centers, slip away.

I was enraged. I grabbed my phone, started to compose a Tweet to our followers, deleted several drafts and finally gave up in frustration because everything I typed sounded entitled and angry (which is never productive, especially on social media). I stopped, took a deep breath, and looked across the room to see my older daughter – my sweet, determined, whip smart, sensitive and BRAVE six year old – standing at the railing on her tip toes holding her “Our Kids Are Worth It!” sign as high as she could and staring down those Big Soda representatives. And, in that moment, I realized I had done what I came to do. I had shown my daughter the value of standing up for the little guy and speaking truth to power (even if your name gets crossed off the list).

In a room where the David and Goliath analogy felt completely apropos, my fierce, amazing, pig-tailed little girl dug deep and showed me why I was there. Because, YES, our kids ARE worth it.

 

 

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Mollie Michel is a South Philly resident and a Philadelphia public school parent. A recovering non-profit professional, Mollie is also an experienced birth doula, Certified Lactation Counselor, and the mom of two awesome girls and a sweet pit bull named Princess Cleopatra. In her spare time, she is usually trying to figure out how Pinterest works, training for a(nother) half-marathon with her dog at her side, or simply trying to keep up with her increasingly wily daughters.