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Can Oakland's Soda Tax Fund a Healthier Town?

Revenues from the 2016 tax measure have helped to provide a more reliable source of funding for Oakland's Town Camp program.

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Town Camp has provided camp access to kids from all across Oakland. - PHOTO BY DIEGO AGUILAR-CANABAL
  • Photo by Diego Aguilar-Canabal
  • Town Camp has provided camp access to kids from all across Oakland.

A pool noodle javelin sailed through the bright blue sky, landing on a patch of grass unnoticed by crowds of cheering children who had already moved on to the next activity. Hundreds of summer campers from Oakland's twenty-six recreation centers had gathered at the Arroyo Viejo Recreation Center for a Town Camp Olympics gathering, a celebration of the city's growing public summer camp program. They played pick-up soccer, slid down slides, and tumbled over obstacle courses with children and counselors from all across the city. Just three years ago, none of this would have been possible.

Serenity, a camper who attended the DeFremery Park Town Camp program, held her camp's banner aloft as her campmates played tug-of-war. "I like that we get to do a lot of things outside, and we get to have our community with us," she said. They would later join campers from as far away as Montclair for an ice cream party.

Over the next two years, the beloved Town Camp program will grow with an additional $4 million annually funded by Oakland's sugar-sweetened beverage tax. When Oakland joined a national wave of soda tax plebiscites by passing Measure HH in 2016, the sugary beverage industry protested with rhetoric against a regressive "grocery tax" that would hurt poor consumers the most. In order to pass the tax with a mere simple majority, the backers of Measure HH had to direct its funds into the city's general fund without earmarking, leaving it up to the city council to allocate soda tax revenue more progressively. But last year, the city council established a special fund within the general fund for soda tax revenue, countering criticisms that the funds would not be spent on health-related initiatives as the ballot initiative promised.

Amid a contentious budget season last month, Councilmembers Lynette McElhaney and Dan Kalb proposed amendments that included spending the anticipated $10 million annual Measure HH revenue on parks, recreation, and food programs. With a volatile fiscal outlook and the memory of the great recession raw in the city's political memory, Oakland's parks have long been at the mercy of contentious budget cuts and, in equal measure, strong efforts to boost their funding. In an 11th-hour compromise hacked out by Council President Rebecca Kaplan and the City Administrator's office, Oakland's Fiscal Year 2019-2021 budget revived funding for a special fund for parks maintenance that Mayor Libby Schaaf had proposed to freeze with eight unfilled full-time positions.

Another aspect of the budget battle's happy ending is that Oakland's department of Parks, Recreation & Youth Development will finally receive funding from Measure HH revenue to stabilize a variety of fitness and community development programs. Director J. Nicholas Williams hopes the additional $4 million carved out in the next two-year budget can create a path to more dedicated funding that can weather the slings and arrows of budgetary politics. Town Camp is the flagship program that will benefit from this arrangement, but Oakland's many recreation centers will generally serve as the locus of various fitness programs, including some designed for senior citizens.

"We want to stop kids from drinking soda, but we don't have control over that," Williams said. "We can program outdoor games, fun and fitness, and teach healthy lifestyles so they can at least develop a good metabolism so they're not sitting around with all that sugar inside. We've added introduction to soccer, lacrosse, tai chi — but with that, we have a reading hour and a math hour, to reinforce what they've learned in school." He also hopes to counter the widespread availability of cheap processed foods with fresh, healthy food served at Town Camp — and far more water and milk than juice. It's worth noting that between 1985 and 2000, the USDA reported just a 20 percent increase in inflation-adjusted prices for carbonated soda, but a whopping 118 percent increase in the price of fruits and vegetables.

In addition to year-round recreation center programming and staffing up the Town Camp program, Parks & Rec will be starting a series of "community fitness nights" with free fitness instruction for all ages at various parks. Williams concedes that relying on a sin tax to fund civic virtue is not ideal, but the benefits can be spread more equitably than in previous budget cycles.

"If we take one kid to Great America, we're taking all thousand of them to Great America," he quipped.

Williams, an Oakland native, worked for several years as a deputy director of Parks & Rec in Minneapolis, which boasts the nation's top-ranking municipal parks, before returning to his hometown in 2016. He noted that Minneapolis parks, unlike those in Oakland, are funded by a separate taxation authority that sets its own budget and tax rates.

"There are other very important services that we have to compete against in Oakland — we didn't have to do that in Minneapolis," he said. "We feel that we are an essential service. "Firefighters are critical, police are critical, Parks & Rec is critical."

Williams' first goal upon returning to Oakland was equalizing vast income-based disparities in various Town Camp programs. Each individual camp set its own tuition fees and programs, and as a result, parks in wealthier neighborhoods were able to provide more comprehensive summer camp experiences. By charging a flat tuition rate, adding scholarships, and bringing the camps together for field trips and activities, Williams aimed to "break down barriers" by enabling children to befriend peers from across the city. Compared to the adult population, the Town Camp Olympics saw perhaps more lighthearted, non-hierarchical interaction between the largely white and Asian population of Montclair and the black population of West Oakland's DeFremery Park than any other public institution.

"This is not a poor kids' program; this is a high-quality program that we make affordable," Williams said. Now with a flat $180 per week fee at every park, Williams said Town Camp is still half the price of the average private summer camp, and an increased budget will allow for more scholarships. As a result of additional scholarship funding in the past year, enrollment in Town Camp nearly doubled from 500 to 1,000. Local philanthropic organizations provide some scholarship funding and programming, and the Curry Foundation — yes, those Currys — hosts community dinners for parents and children to share catered meals together at the recreation centers. Town Camp children also get to meet players of the Oakland A's at their home stadium, and take science lessons from volunteers sent by the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

Ultimately, Town Camp is a microcosm of what Williams hopes to do with additional soda tax funding. "We have a goal for every kid in Oakland to learn to swim by 5th grade, and we have money to provide scholarships for that in the Parks & Rec budget," he said.

With 26 percent of children living below the poverty line in Oakland as of 2017 census data, that could go a long way toward mitigating health and fitness disparities among lower-income communities of color. Several medical studies, including a 2006 meta-analysis by Gordon-Larsen et al have found that disparities in the built environment limit low-income minority populations' access to facilities such as gyms, swimming pools, safe parks and roads safe for biking, which in turn exacerbates high rates of obesity in communities with limited access to healthy diets.

"We provide families a sense of security for their kids, knowing that they're in a safe space with high-quality programming, with certified staff," Williams said. Part of his hope was to mitigate not just neighborhood crime with more rec center activities, but educational disparities as well. But that takes raising awareness and political capital, so Williams intends to use part of the budget for a neighborhood canvassing campaign, as though Parks & Rec were running for a seat on the city council. "What we'd really like to do is just go door to door, let people see a face, being a part of the neighborhood," he said.

"This is like their second home," said Carmen Medina, the facilities director at Manzanita Park. "They may be at home for eight hours, they're also here for eight hours." Medina said the additional funding could help provide repairs that otherwise were provided by parents, which resulted in obvious income disparities across the parks system. "The basketball court needs some work — we keep taping up the floors," she added. "Then kids could play basketball all the time."

As the afternoon sun waned over Manzanita, a caterer's truck pulled up at the curb to begin serving food for the community dinner. A young boy dribbled a basketball while riding a Segway hoverboard across the asphalt. On a bench behind the basketball court, a Cambodian family watched their toddler blowing soap bubbles. Whether or not they drink soda, the Parks & Rec department intends to teach them all how to swim. Sinking isn't an option anymore.

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