Dr. Amy Nunn is executive director of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute and Open Door Health. www.riphi.org. Mark Tracy is the president of the board of directors of the Rhode Island Public Health Institute and president and CEO of Cloud Ag.
Today, one in four homes in Rhode Island lack sufficient food. Hunger rates increased from 9% prior to the pandemic to 25% in late 2020. During times of economic crisis, the quality of food consumption is also threatened, causing more people to consume calorie-rich and nutrient-poor foods. These trends contribute to chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease. A creative public health solution is needed to address food insecurity and promote healthier eating.
This legislative session, we have an opportunity to mitigate the food crisis by passing sugary drinks tax legislation introduced by Rep. Jean Philippe Barros and Sen. Valarie Lawson. Research shows this legislation will lead to fewer Rhode Islanders drinking unhealthy sugary beverages. This legislation also proposes using proceeds to make fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible to vulnerable populations through the creation of a Retail SNAP Incentive Program (RSIP).
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal program that helps low-income Americans afford food for their families. SNAP fruit and vegetable incentives aim to improve diet quality by providing matching funds for purchases on produce. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of families rely on SNAP to meet their food needs.
The Rhode Island Public Health Institute oversees Food on the Move, one of only two SNAP incentive programs in the state. Food on the Move has enhanced healthy eating for thousands of low-income Rhode Islanders by offering a 50% discount on purchases made with SNAP benefits. Yet, 90% of SNAP dollars in America are redeemed in grocery stores, highlighting the need to expand incentive programs to these settings. Other states which have implemented RSIPs have seen clear health and economic benefits. In Massachusetts, SNAP incentive program participants increased their fruit and vegetable intake by 26 percent; grocery stores in California saw as much as a 12% increase in produce sales.
The Rhode Island Public Health Institute strongly supports the sugary drink tax as a means to fund the Retail SNAP Incentive Program. Sugary drinks are a major source of added sugar in the American diet and are linked to increased risks of chronic disease. Several cities have implemented sugary drink taxes to fund other important public health and educational initiatives. Seattle’s sugary drink tax, for example, has generated over $15 million in annual revenue which is used to fund the city’s SNAP incentive programming.
To block this legislation, the beverage industry often spreads misinformation suggesting this tax culminates in job loss. Scientific evidence refutes this claim. The city of Philadelphia experienced no significant changes in unemployment compared to neighboring counties one year after tax implementation. Instead, many consumers switched to drinking bottled water, which has become a solid revenue stream for the beverage industry.
Passing a sugary drink tax as the funding mechanism for a Retail SNAP Incentive Program will have a demonstrable impact on public health in Rhode Island. The tax has the ability to boost the local economy, raising an estimated $45 million in state revenue. This revenue can be used to promote health equity by increasing healthy food access in communities which have been disproportionately impacted by chronic disease.