Taxing “Junk Food” as Part of the Food Revolution

One of the innovative programs initiated by the people of Davao City and supported by the City Government of Davao is the Davao Food Revolution. It is a revolution that believes access to affordable healthy food is a human rights and social justice issue.

This food revolution is being led by women, who usually make the decisions about food in the family. They are the women who belong to the Mothers for Peace movement. And the revolution officially started in 2012 with the partnership of Mothers for Peace, the City Government of Davao, and the Department of Education (DepEd).

The Davao Food Revolution’s goal is to help achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on holistic and empowering health practices as a means to reduce poverty. Breaking the cycle of poverty requires investments by governments and civil society in children’s wellbeing, as well as women’s rights. It is a sound economic investment with high rates of return.

It is primarily an advocacy campaign for access to affordable healthy food in public schools. Its central message is “access to healthy food is a basic right” starting with school children. Malnourished children are less likely to grow and develop their full potential. Basic education may be free but school snacks and meals are not. Without proper nutrition, school children will suffer micronutrient deficiencies and frequent illnesses that lead to poor school performance and high dropout rates.

The food that our school children eat is an important public health issue. Although DepEd has already banned “junk food” in all public and elementary and secondary schools, principals and teachers have difficulty complying with this directive as most of the food readily available in supermarkets and local grocery stores that are offered in school cafeterias are processed and with little nutritional value. The food being sold to school children by vendors outside the school are even worse. Aside from dubious nutritional content, the food may have not been prepared in a safe and sanitary manner.

The Davao Food Revolution provides a model where schools can tap the women in the different barangays near schools to grow organic vegetables and fruits, prepare them using creative kid-friendly recipes, and supply affordable healthy food made of fresh, local, and organic ingredients to school children.

Not only does the revolution promote the health and nutrition of public school children, it also provides opportunities for women’s livelihood. It is an innovative solution that not only addresses women’s practical needs (access to affordable healthy food), but also women’s strategic needs (control and power over decisions on how their food is produced, prepared, sold, and consumed). It is investing in women micro-entrepreneurs engaged in healthy food production and processing, and promoting healthy food carts as a vehicle to increase access of school children to affordable healthy food.

Davao City is nationally and internationally recognized for its track record in conducting successful public health campaigns such as the ban on smoking, firecrackers, and aerial spraying of harmful chemical agricultural inputs. The Davao City Council has introduced an ordinance banning “junk food” in schools and outside the schools’ immediate vicinity as part of the city’s healthy lifestyle campaign. It has not been implemented yet because they could not get a consensus on what “junk food” is.

Ironically, it was reported that the proposed ordinance was criticized by the Department of Health (DOH) because defining what constitutes “junk food” is tricky. For DOH, if you fortify a processed food with a drop of vitamins and nutrients of some sort, it is no longer considered “junk.” So technically, since sugar, salt and fat are nutrients, what we may consider “junk food” can still have nutritional value.

Of course, that argument is also tricky, not to mention lame, in so many levels. Some food are better than others. We should not consume too much of any particular nutrient, with historically heightened concerns about fat, salt, and sugar. Consumption of fat is associated with obesity and heart disease; consumption of salt with hypertension and cardiovascular disease; and sugar with obesity and diabetes. So maybe DOH can rethink their definition of what “junk food” is and take their cue from the healthy food advocates of the Davao Food Revolution.

The news that incoming President Rodrigo R. Duterte is planning on taxing “junk food” is a proposal being supported by the mothers who want healthy food for their children. This move will help discourage the production and consumption of unhealthy food because studies have shown that people respond to prices when deciding what to eat and drink. Taxes discourage consumption of targeted food and drinks and increase consumption of alternatives.

But taxing “junk food” is just one part of a comprehensive healthy food policy. There must also be increased investments in production of healthy alternatives like government support to small organic farmers, urban community gardens, and micro-enterprises producing healthy food. Tax incentives can also be given to businesses engaged in healthy food production and distribution, including restaurants and grocery stores. As you make “junk food” less affordable, you must also make healthy food more affordable and accessible.

Everybody eats and how we eat impacts on the health of our families and communities. Having a pool of healthy human resource is important to peace and development. Changing the way we eat can lead to other changes in our individual and communal lives. That is why access to affordable healthy food is an economic, health, and social justice issue. Let us bring the Davao Food Revolution to the rest of the Philippines.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, June 9, 2016.