Soda Tax or Free Fruits and Veggies?

For all its good intention, the soda tax will undoubtedly ignite a bitter debate. Why not try a more palatable policy, such as swapping out azaleas and petunias for apples and peas?
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The soda wars are afizz again in two California communities. Voters in Richmond and El Monte will soon decide whether a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks is an appropriate municipal policy to help combat obesity.

Proponents of such policies argue something needs to be done to get communities fit and healthy. This is especially urgent in poorer cities like Richmond and El Monte. Here's an alarming statistic: HALF of the children in these two communities are obese or overweight. It is likely these children will live sicker and die younger than their parents.

Indeed, instances of obesity and type-2 diabetes have ballooned in urban America over the past two decades, with no relief in sight. Taxing soda (or passing moratoria on fast food restaurants, as Los Angeles did recently) places obstacles between consumers and high-calorie foods. But opponents argue such taxes infringe on civil liberties, by stifling a person's right to choose what to eat.

Regardless of where you stand on the issue, limiting unhealthy foods is only half of the diet equation. A more balanced solution is to encourage a more balanced diet. Municipalities might want to consider providing fresh fruits and vegetables to their citizens, especially in neighborhoods where healthy food is scarcely found.

Public produce--the planting of fruits and vegetables in public space, and allowing the public to freely harvest--is an obesity-combating policy that is gaining favor with municipalities throughout North America.

In 2010, residents of Seattle--with help from Council members and the Department of Transportation--transformed a weedy street median into an edible oasis. Two years later, that public garden has grown by leaps and bounds. Public fruit trees and vegetable plots sit alongside traditional community garden plots, picnic tables, and Adirondack chairs. It has become a neighborhood gathering place, nourishing both body and soul.

Municipal planners in Provo, Utah have been tending vegetables on the steps of City Hall for the past four years. Several-hundred pounds of carrots, potatoes, squash and melons have replaced frou-frou flowers. Produce which is not harvested by the public or other municipal employees is donated to the local food bank.

Provo's project inspired a similar public produce garden in the town of Bainbridge, Washington. City Planner Steve Morse wondered aloud, "Why put all this energy into growing ornamental plants when you can grow food?"

And in Kamloops, British Columbia, folks have been hard at work with their public produce plot. In 2011, a group planted a vegetable garden on a vacant lot on Victoria Street in the heart of downtown. College students picked zucchini alongside business suits, and children learned about zesty mizuna with their parents.

That vacant lot garden inspired another edible landscape in Kamloops, this one right outside of City Hall. Swiss chard, beets, kale, strawberries, and even agave were planted to "educate citizens, neighbourhood groups and the business community on how edible landscaping or food-scaping can be grown on private or public lands while contributing to a more food secure and healthy community."

For all its good intention, the soda tax will undoubtedly ignite a bitter debate. Why not try a more palatable policy, such as swapping out azaleas and petunias for apples and peas? This is the sort of government policy that can provide even more choice to its citizens, not limit them. It is a win-win for municipal governments, as public goals are attained and the City's public image improved.

As one gardener in Bainbridge commented, "I want people to see City Hall differently-- that it's our public land, and that it works for us and with us."

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