With my first column of the year, let me take a few moments to send some words of praise to Mayor Jim Kenney. I think Kenney is OK with self-deprecating humor. He has routinely appeared publicly as Buddy the Elf, and that is endearing. Recently, he and his staff allowed an African American Mummer to ridicule him in the big New Year’s Day parade by pretending to be Jay-Z and walk another Mummer portraying Kenney as a dog.
I didn’t care for this attempt at humor, but I think it showed that Kenney has a relatively thick skin in these matters. That’s a good quality to have, because I think Kenney’s grand plan to lift future generations out of poverty through a beverage tax hit a major dose of reality this past week.
I talked on my radio show with Jeff Brown, owner of 12 supermarkets in the city and suburbs that will become 11 when he closes his ShopRite at 67th and Haverford in West Philly, because of what he says is a loss of revenue caused by the city’s sugary-beverage tax. The store is only a few blocks from the Delaware County line, and Brown claims that when people went to Delco to buy soda and beat the tax, they eventually did all their grocery shopping there. He claimed that the store had $30.5 million in sales in 2016, the year before the tax went into effect, while, in 2018, sales were only $23.4 million. Brown said that these losses threaten what he has been trying to do with his other stores. He was particularly incensed with a Kenney administration statement delivered by spokesperson Mike Dunn: “It is no surprise that Mr. Brown has decided to scapegoat the Philadelphia Beverage Tax, but neither he nor the beverage industry have yet to present any evidence that the tax has had any impact on sales.”
I share Brown’s outrage over this position. Wouldn’t it be more honest if Kenney and his “experts” would just say that the store closure is just collateral damage and that it’s worth the cost to help future generations avoid poverty? Wouldn’t it also be more honest if the Kenney crew and some of his supporters acknowledged that they feel a sense of superiority over the steady soda drinkers in Philadelphia? Brown notes that the latte-drinking staff around Kenney also consumes a good deal of sugar.
I could tell Brown resents the fact that he and others are being demonized for selling soda. He told the Daily News and Inquirer, “I built these stores to help people live healthier, longer lives. This is taking a success and destroying it.”
He opened up to me about being recognized by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, talking with them and getting them to see that soda taxes were not the answer to healthier lives in urban America.
It was moving to hear of these discussions, and of the conclusion that the best policy was to draw entrepreneurs such as Brown to open supermarkets in food deserts, areas that don’t have such stores.
He and I talked about giving people choices and how Brown was able to marry Mrs. Obama’s ideas for healthy eatin with the free-market fervor of Republicans in the Pennsylvania state legislature to decrease food deserts in Philadelphia.
“This location will be a food desert,” he told me of the store that is closing. “They won’t have fresh food anymore.”
Brown and I also discussed the 600 workers with criminal histories he employs and how many have worked their way up into management. We discussed the pride he takes in having such community support services as health clinics in some stores.
So, you would think that Brown would be a tough guy to demonize for Kenney. Based on that, I’ll make a couple of predictions: Brown will be instrumental in mounting support for someone to run for mayor against Kenney this year because of the damage caused by the beverage tax. There will be enough money to organize Philadelphians behind a candidate to oppose Kenney and promise to overturn the soda tax.
The other prediction is that whatever happens, people will be smart enough and determined enough to avoid the soda tax. Philadelphia, I’m counting on you.