Bronx Soda Buyback Event Not Exactly a Hit

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On Saturday, the Alliance for a Healthier New York and SEIU 1199's Healthcare Education Project held a soda buyback event at Richard R. Green Middle School in the Bronx to support the soda tax.

"We will be disposing any of the sodas we get," said Andy King, an AHNY organizer. "We are not returning them anywhere. We are not drinking them. We'd OD if we drank all those sodas."

An honorable sentiment, though the reality fell a bit flat: A dumpster labeled "soda toilet" contained very few deposits; only a couple of children surrendered containers of Tropical Fantasy and other sugar-sweetened juices. Those drinks joined a lone bottle of soda -- ironically, a Sprite Zero, which wouldn't be subject to the tax at all.

Anti-soda activists like King say that a soda tax, which would hike the price of a liter of soda by almost 34 cents, would help reshape behavior, waistlines and the beverage industry, not to mention pour $1 billion into the state's budget. And despite the lack of "contraband" received, King was happy to be teaching the 100 children who arrived at the event to avoid the sweet stuff.

"A can of soda a day shortens your life eight years," Darnell Morris, an organizer with SEIU 1199's Healthcare Education Project, told a large group of kids. Another educator passed around a yellowy model of fat to provide a stomach-turning visual for the students, as she warned that soda contributed to weight gain.

In New York, young adults ages ten to 17 outweigh the national obesity average. According to the National Initiative for Children's Healthcare Quality, 32.9 percent are overweight or obese. In low-income communities, those percentages climb over 10 percent higher, both in the state and across the country.

Statistics like that have convinced Florence Johnson, a lead HEP organizer, to fight for the tax and against the industry that she believes markets unhealthy beverages in lower income neighborhoods.

"I'm an overweight, African-American female. I am the target," Johnson said. "If you go out on a street like this one or in the southeast Queens community that I live in, all you see is soda -- not diet soda, just regular soda, beer, very little 100 percent fruit juice and no milk, and very little water, maybe some bottles of Poland Spring."

Johnson heralded the possible tax as a behavior-modifier. "It will, just like the tax on cigarettes, decrease consumption over time," she said.

But for kids, water still remained that boring, tasteless substance.

"Just plain water?" one little girl lamented after being told to abandon the other drinks for H20. "Add lemon," the educator suggested. Meanwhile, WBLS FM radio personality Dr. Bob Lee attempted to stage a style-based appeal: "Soda is the new water!" he exclaimed.

While that catchphrase has us confused, what is clear is that the Bronx has become a stage for the tax fight. Blocks away from the school, on White Plains Road and E. 219th Street, advertisements for sugary drinks plastered the fa├žade of one bodega. Inside, a shopkeeper was uncertain what impact the tax would have on daily dealings -- until Elizabeth Gomez, who was about to pay for a 2-liter bottle of Sunkist and other groceries, said he'd lose that sale. "That makes me not want to drink soda," she said in support of the soda tax. "A lot of people that drink soda are big and everything and they have a lot of problems."

At the end of the day, though, the kids probably said it best. Johnell Farrier, 13 -- who stood next to a buddy clutching an enormous bottle of spring water, spouting off the negatives of sweetened drinks -- took a realistic approach: "They'll still buy it if they like it," he said, "no matter how much it is."

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