Rep. Jean Philippe Barros and Sen. Valarie Lawson
Rep. Jean Philippe Barros, D-Pawtucket, represents House District 59. Sen. Valarie Lawson, D-East Providence, represents Senate District 14.
According to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, one in four local households will struggle to put food on their tables tonight. This is the highest level of food insecurity we’ve seen in 20 years, and the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.
If you’ve ever relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to buy food, you understand the importance of seeing a “50% OFF” sticker on an item you and your family need. For many Rhode Islanders, the search for those discounts is the only feasible way they can provide their families with the fresh, healthy food they need.
State lawmakers, right now, have an opportunity to pass legislation that would fund a program to make those discounts more accessible. Our bills, H5715 and S0327, would implement a 1.5 cent per ounce tax on unhealthy, sugary beverages, and earmark the revenue to create a statewide Retail SNAP Incentive Program. The program could provide the more than 144,000 Rhode Islanders who rely on SNAP benefits, including more than 46,000 children and nearly 30,000 senior citizens, with a 50% discount on fresh produce when they pay with their SNAP benefits at retail grocery stores.
The Retail SNAP Incentive Program this legislation would create, combined with the health benefits of reducing the consumption of unhealthy sugary drinks, would provide an opportunity to make real progress in the effort to alleviate hunger in Rhode Island, and to help address racial and economic inequities in public health outcomes.
As the sponsors of the legislation in the House and Senate, we are proud that these bills have earned support from Rhode Islanders, including pediatricians, primary care physicians and public health leaders, who point to sugary beverages as leading contributors to obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease — all of which are on the rise in Rhode Island, especially among children. We are also proud to have the backing of private business, including local retail and produce distribution, who stand to benefit from the immediate doubling of SNAP beneficiaries’ purchasing power.
Unfortunately, though, industry advocates from the beverage lobby are working hard, and spending big, to distract from the issue. Like Big Tobacco before them, the soda lobby is leveraging misleading statistics and fear-mongering tactics in an effort to convince policymakers and consumers alike that slightly raising taxes on their products will lead to job losses. They’re making these arguments despite the fact that numerous studies prove they’re untrue.
Peer-reviewed, scientific studies from institutions like the Harvard University Chan School of Public Health show that sugary drink taxes have no impact on employment in the food and beverage industries. They also prove that SNAP Incentive Programs like the one we’re proposing can lead to significant increases in produce sales, as well as greater access to healthier foods in underserved communities.
The soda advocates’ end goal is to make sure this legislation doesn’t get a vote.
We simply cannot allow this to happen in Rhode Island. This legislation is too important, and its potential benefits are too far-reaching, for its fate to be swayed by corporate interests or decided by anything less than a full General Assembly vote.
Rhode Islanders deserve equitable access to fresh, healthy food and beverages. We believe the sugary drinks tax is a good first step to reaching that goal. We urge our fellow elected representatives to bring this legislation to a vote.