Taxing sugar sweetened beverages (SSB) is a policy strategy that is gaining momentum as a way to decrease sugar consumption, improve the health and wellbeing of communities, and raise revenue for health promotion, food access, and equity related efforts. Boulder, Colorado and Seattle, Washington are two cities that have enacted a SSB tax and have dedicated a portion of the funds raised to farm to early care and education efforts. This month, we will take a look at the comprehensive and inspiring work these cities have been able to accomplish with the help of these funds.
A Natural Fit for Priority Funding
Seattle’s Farm to Table initiative and Boulder’s farm to ECE program work to bring healthy, local foods and hands-on experiences such as gardening and food education activities to their communities. In Seattle, tax fund distribution prioritizes early childhood education and food access: a natural fit for farm to ECE. “We can address these two crucial areas, nourishing these children and improving very underpaid providers’ access to healthy foods,” explained Leika Suzumura, Farm to Table consultant. Thanks to SSB funding, these programs have been true successes, supporting participating sites with the tools and resources needed to create comprehensive farm to ECE programming such as nutrition and garden education, technical assistance, and funds for local food purchasing and gardening tools.
The sugar sweetened beverage tax funds have been integral to the growth of these programs. Once Boulder’s tax was passed in 2016 and the program was able to secure funding, they hired Heather Haurswirth as the farm to ECE coordinator. With a new dedicated staff member, the program greatly expanded. “We started in 2015 with 4 child care programs. We grew to 12 programs in 2016, 37 programs in 2018, 54 programs in 2019, 68 programs in 2020, and now 75 programs in 2021,” explained Hauswirth. This past year they even started to offer additional produce to cities outside of Boulder with limited food access. Seattle’s Farm to Table also brought on more staff with tax funds, first received in 2018, enabling them to greatly expand their program. Increased staff capacity has also allowed them to spend time on developing long term plans that focus on increasing the quality and reach of the program.
A Community Asset During COVID
Both the Seattle and Boulder team explained how invaluable the SSB tax funding became during COVID when food security and food access plummeted. Families still needed to feed their children, so the programs took action and began to send food home with families. This was critical, as Seattle farmer’s markets were closed and store shelves were empty, limiting farmers’ selling opportunities and households’ access to healthy, fresh food. “We were able to respond and build even stronger relationships with our sites. We’re cultivating that trust,” explained Kelly Okumura, Farm to Table’s program manager.
Okumura went on to explain how critical building these relationships has been to the success of Farm to Table. During a visit to a center that had not fully participated in local food procurement, Okumura was able to meet Ms. Patrice, the kitchen lead. “It was magical meeting Ms. Patrice,” Okumura said. “She told me ‘now that I know who you are, I’m going to order the food.’ The shift was visceral.”
The COVID-19 experience also had an impact on how participants in Boulder’s program, and in turn, the program administrators themselves, saw theprogram’s role in the community. “Last year the most profound feedback we received was the increase in food accessibility due to our program. Because of the pandemic, we felt like we were playing a role,” explained Hauswirth. Boulder is now looking to the future to see how they can expand food access through their program. “We’d love to engage with more organizations across the city or county. There’s so many different places our program can go.”
Both Boulder and Seattle have used SSB tax funds to give children a healthy start in life, improve the quality of childcare, and provide families with vital assistance. However, as both programs made sure to note, the true value of farm to ECE comes in the excitement and sense of wonder it creates. Suzumura and Okumura shared stories about children rushing out of class to see what’s in that day’s deliver box and finding seemingly magical produce like purple potatoes, rainbow carrots, and lions mane mushrooms; tasting foods like local chickens that, as Ms. Patrice noted, just smell better; seeing worms squirm around in soil; and planting a few potatoes and harvesting four buckets full. These experiences not only teach children to appreciate the fun and often mysterious place our natural environment can be, but can lead to naturally healthier children, both mentally and physically. As Hauswith explained, “certain kids wouldn’t touch a brussel sprout or a tomato, but went on a field trip to a farm, or saw it in their produce box, or grew it in their garden, and now they're asking for it at home or eating it at lunch. It’s something we see time and time again and it always makes me smile. That the intention of the program is actually working.”