A man in a white jacket standing in front of Oakland City Hall with a serious look on his face.
Dwayne Aikens, board chair for the Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax Advisory Board, at City Hall in Oakland, Calif., on August 4, 2023. Credit: Florence Middleton

Members of an official advisory board tasked with recommending how millions of dollars from Oakland’s sugary drink tax are spent say their advice to the City Council and mayor has consistently not been followed. 

The Sugar Sweetened Beverage Tax Community Advisory Board recommended in April, while Mayor Sheng Thao was preparing to release her draft 2023-2025 city budget, that around $4.3 million, or 60% of the total revenue the tax is expected to raise this year, be given to community-based organizations that support health and wellness for Oaklanders. The city expects to collect just over $7 million each year from the tax.

The board recommended that the remaining 40% of the tax, roughly $2.8 million per year, be divided three ways: city agencies like the Human Services Department and Oakland Parks, Recreation and Youth Development would get 16%. Another 16% would go to the Oakland Unified School District. The remaining 8% would be used to cover administrative costs. 

However, according to the advisory board and analysts from SPUR, a San Francisco-based non-profit public policy organization, the amount that the council ultimately set aside for community-based organizations was much less—28% instead of 60%. 

According to city budget records reviewed by The Oaklandside, the mayor and council kept most of the money, over $5 million each year, using it to pay for city services in departments like Parks, Recreation and Youth Development. 

“I’m not saying don’t invest in the parks,” said Dwayne Aikens, chair of the advisory board, which is made up of nine volunteer Oakland residents (four seats are currently unfilled). “But they have consistently not taken our recommendations seriously.” 

Tonya Love, Councilmember Carroll Fife’s chief of staff, said that the mayor and council members do take the board’s recommendations into account, but that the council also has to ensure that the budget is balanced. It was also a priority this year to ensure that no city staffers were laid off, she said. 

“Knowing how important it is to have recommendations from the community advisory board be honored, I’m actually, with Council Member Fife, exploring different options that we can use legislatively to become more aligned,” said Love, who was also a member of the board from 2018 to 2020. 

City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas and councilmembers Kaplan and Jenkins, members of the group of councilmembers who drafted the final city budget, including the soda tax expenditures, were not available for an interview.

Measure HH, the voter initiative that created the city tax on sugary beverages, required Oakland to set up the advisory board. The idea was to appoint locals with expertise that the council and mayor don’t have, including residents of neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by diseases caused by excess sugar consumption as well as public health, medical, and dental professionals.

The advisory board is not only concerned with the lack of money going to community organizations compared to city agencies, but also with how the money is split among community groups. In particular, they note that SABA Grocers Initiative, a non-profit organization that distributes produce to corner stores and food cards for Oaklanders to purchase healthy foods, will receive approximately $500,000 of the $2 million earmarked for community groups, much more than any other group.

SABA has considerable support from community members. At a City Council meeting in May, residents spoke about the importance of the program to their communities. 

“I suffer from anemia and osteoarthritis and this program allows me to get a more vitamin enriched diet,” said Tyra Richburg, a SABA recipient. “I can now, because of this program, have fresh fruit and vegetables with every meal, and it is making such an improvement in my overall health.”

Aikens said he and other board members support the good work SABA is doing. But he said other organizations should have received more funding. 

“My issue is ensuring that the funding is going out equitably and used for health and wellness and youth development programs and projects,” Aikens said. 

Lina Ghanem, executive director of SABA, said that 72% of their funding is distributed back to residents in the form of food cards and matched spending at the stores they supply produce to. SABA currently stocks 16 corner stores with produce and their food cards can be used in 26 stores located across Oakland. 

“We are delivering on the promise to bring health to Oakland,” Ghanem said. “While there are always battles during the budget process as to what programs to fund and how much, SABA still is delivering highly on the comments made by voters in 2016.” 

At stores where SABA is active, Ghanem said that there’s a noticeable increase in people buying healthy foods. Over the last three years, store owners went from spending $100 per week to stock their shelves with produce to $2,000 due to increased demand.  

SPUR has been tracking how funds from the soda tax have been allocated by the City Council and the organization is set to publish a study soon detailing how the advisory board’s recommendations compare with the council’s allocations. While they can’t share the exact numbers yet, Paloma Sisneros-Lobato, policy manager with SPUR’s Food and Agriculture Team, said they don’t match.

“In the five years since implementation, the community advisory board recommendations have never been followed in their entirety,” Sisneros-Lobato said. “SPUR is really supportive of the community advisory boards recommendations being followed because they’ve been, all year long, compiling their recommendations, and they have been tasked with doing this.” 

Last year, SPUR published a report detailing how soda tax revenues from the 2022-23 fiscal year budget cycle were allocated. It showed that only 25%, instead of the recommended 60% of funds, went to community-based grants. The council approved this spending plan despite letters Aikens sent to the council asking that the board’s recommendations not be ignored. 

Sisneros-Lobato said that this year’s allocations were a “significant departure” from the board’s recommendations, similar to last year. For example, the board recommended in the last budget cycle that just under $800,000 be allocated to the Oakland Parks, Recreation and Youth Department, yet over $3 million was approved.

Aikens worries that the city is using Measure HH, which was passed as a general tax, to backfill the budget by paying for jobs not directly related to health and wellness. SPUR’s Sisneros-Lobato echoes this concern.

“The spending allocation from the SSB tax suggests that Oakland is using the revenue from this tax to fill voids in the city’s General Fund rather than to support programming specifically targeted at improving healthy living in line with the tax’s original intent,” Sisneros-Lobato wrote in her report about last year’s budget. “The divergence of the city’s revenue allocation from the advisory board’s recommendations reflects ineffective implementation of the SSB tax.”

Love said that soda tax revenues are often allocated to city departments that need funding, but that the money must support the mission of the tax.

“In her [the mayor’s] proposed budget, there was probably a good amount of funds from Measure HH used to support parks programs and staff,” said Love. “But because of the legislation, the money from Measure HH has to go to the specific purpose of reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.”

Aikens intends to keep pressuring the council to be more transparent about how the tax funds are spent.

“The city of Oakland needs to take the sugar sweetened beverage tax advisors recommendations,” Aikens said. “If they’re not going to do that, they need to answer to the people why.”

Ayla Burnett is a narrative writer and investigative reporter covering climate science, food and environmental justice in the Bay Area. She received her masters from UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism in May 2023, and was a UC Berkeley food justice reporting fellow at The Oaklandside/Nosh in the summer of 2023. Her stories have also been published in Berkeleyside, the Point Reyes Light, and more.