Mexico Confronts Obesity Issue with New Soda Tax, Junk Food Tax

Mexico, recently famed in headlines for an obesity epidemic, made history this past month by imposing a tax in the upcoming year on soda and junk foods. 

The new tax in Mexico, scheduled for 2014, will bring a national tax of one peso per liter—roughly 10 percent—on sugar-sweetened beverages and 8 percent on junk food, according to a New York Times op-ed piece.

Countries such as Finland, Hungary and France have already passed similar legislation aimed at public health. Even Britain’s Conservative-led coalition has considered such a tax.

The Mexican soda tax, which is set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2014, will apply to all foods with added sugar, not including dairy products such as milk or yogurt. The junk food tax will be on high-calorie foods that have 275 calories or more into 100 grams of food like chips, candies, pudding, peanut and hazelnut butters, milk, sugary cereals and ice cream.

Federal regulators in the country have also announced their intention to issue rules to regulate television advertising of junk food products, fried foods and other unhealthy options from appearing at certain times of the day when a larger number of children might be watching.

Earlier this past month, there was talk about Mexican Coke losing its much-appreciated key ingredient, cane sugar, and it being replaced with old-fashioned corn syrup.

Social media sites experienced a stir of people who were angry and saddened by the rumors. Some people even claimed that they would soon begin hoarding cases of Mexican Coke before their beloved soda was no longer the same.

But Arca Continential, the Mexican Coke bottler, clarified and said changes to how the soda would be sweetened would only occur to soda sold in Mexico because of the soda tax that will soon be active.

It’s been my experience that Mexicans are big soda drinkers. Just about every Mexican restaurant/café/bakery/establishment that serves food I’ve been in sells soda.

Mexicans drink an average of about 707 8-ounce servings—roughly 44 gallons—of soda per year, according to Beverage Digest. Trailing not too far behind are Americans who consume about 701 servings of soda.

Like some people, I think this is a good step for Mexico and perhaps more countries—like the United States—should follow.

I live in Pilsen, where a majority of residents are Mexican or of Mexican descent, and I’ve lost count of all the bakeries, ice cream shops, candy stores and taco shops I see on a regular basis. Don’t get me wrong, I love having these options and sense of Mexican culture so close to me, as do many of the surrounding residents I’m sure, but it does concern me how few healthy options there are in the neighborhood.

There’s an all-natural juice bar at the Pink Link Damen stop, and I’ve been told there’s a woman who sells organic food at her shop on 18th Street. There are also two health clubs on Cermak Road—that I know of—where people can meet twice a day to consume Herbalife teas and shakes in place of a meal if they desire. But compared to all the other not-so-healthy options, these places can easily be camouflaged in the neighborhood.

As Mexico begins to address the importance of health and fighting obesity, I wonder if Mexican immigrant communities in Chicago—such as Pilsen, Little Village, Albany Park, the Back of the Yards—will take steps in the same direction? 

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To blend in. To stand out.

I was a little concerned about having to do some reporting and filming with my equipment this week. Not because I don’t love it, because I do, but because I didn’t want to scare anyone off. Maybe it seems strange that equipment might scare people off, but it’s actually happened to me before.

Sure, sometimes people see a camera and they immediately want to jump in front of it. But other times, especially for immigrants, people just want to blend in, off camera.

This week’s assignment led me to several interesting characters in the Heart of Chicago. Each of them took the time to share what was on their mind through a curious conversation that started with a look at my tripod and the question, “what’s that?”

* * *

First, there was Diego, who I met in a nutrition club on Cermak Road. Diego let me know right away how strongly he felt about the gang violence in the neighborhood. He asked why I thought it existed in the first place.

“Why do you think it exists?” I asked him as my reply.

Diego explained that the fault fell on the parents and the police department. He gave me several scenarios where parents might attempt to discipline their children by giving them curfews or punish them for misbehaving, but the child’s response would include a threat to call the police to report child abuse. Diego said many immigrant parents wouldn’t stop their kids from causing trouble out of fear for the police.

He added that it’s in the police department’s best interest to partner with the parents and let them know they stand by them when they want to punish their children.

Sometimes there’s a fine line between how U.S. born-and-raised parents discipline their children versus how immigrant parents discipline their children—both having their reasons to justify such.

Then there was Doña Mari (“Doña” is how you refer to an older person with respect in Mexico and other Latin American countries. It’s like “Mrs.”). She wanted to talk to me about health care. She’s been keeping up with the news because she wanted to know how it would affect her since she has diabetes.

Doña Mari works as a cook at a rehabilitation facility. She makes around $12,000 a year working six hour shifts a few times a week. She doesn’t have kids—never could—and has been separated from her husband for 10 years. She lives with her sister and her kids. She tries to take really good care of herself because she doesn’t have health insurance, she said.

But she knows she’s better off getting sick in the U.S. than getting sick in Mexico.

And finally, there was Francisco. He’s originally from Ixtlapan de Juarez, Oaxaca in Mexico. He came to the U.S. 10 years ago to look for work. Francisco works three jobs right now; he’s a handyman, he cleans windows and he sells fruit out of his truck.

Francisco loves his culture and native country, but he wishes “his own”—as he put it—would be more concerned with how their surroundings look and feel. He talked about trash on the streets and people littering in parks, and how he doesn’t want that to be the way people think of all immigrants.

“We might be from the same place, but that doesn’t mean we’re all the same way,” Francisco said.

Francisco also talked about panhandlers in Chicago. It didn’t make sense that people with more privileges in this country than him could ask him to spare some money, he said.

Sometimes he wishes he had stayed in Mexico, closer to his brother and five sisters. But Francisco really does like it here. He doesn’t plan to work three jobs forever, he said with a hopeful smile.

* * *

Maybe it was the equipment that sparked the conversation in these characters; maybe it was the need to express their thoughts and opinions to someone. But maybe, people start to open up when they realize they’re really being listened to. 

A majority of a minority

I was 15 when I attended my first “Latino assembly” in high school, or ever for that matter. It was the 2nd year the school excused all the Latinos from classes and gathered us in the auditorium for the day to educate and enlighten us about issues concerning our roots and us.

 

There were about 300 Latinos—Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, etc.—out of about 1200 students at my high school in Provo, Utah in 2006.

 

There were several speakers at the assembly. They talked to us about going to college, being proud of where we come from and encouraged us to dream big and go for those big dreams. There was also a DJ who tried to get everyone pumped by flashing names of different Latin American countries across a large projector screen on stage. For each country that appeared on the screen, excitement and cheering would come from the students in the audience who represent that country. One by one, each country got its glory. El Salvador, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico. But where was Mexico? Then suddenly, when it seemed all the countries had been recognized, in big, bold, red, white and green letters across the screen appeared “MEXICO,” and—as cliché as it may be—the crowd went wild. Well, the Mexicans at least, which was the majority in the auditorium.

 

It dawned on me then, just how much of a presence Mexicans have in the U.S.

 

A record 33.7 million Latinos of Mexican origin resided in the U.S. in 2012, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Pew Research Center. Mexicans accounted for nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the U.S. Latino population in 2012 and 11 percent of the entire U.S. population. Mexican immigration has played a key role in making Mexicans the single largest country of origin group among the nation’s 40 million immigrants. Today, approximately 11.4 million Mexican immigrants live in the U.S., according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

 

While Mexicans in the U.S. are spread out among many different cities and states, over one-quarter of all Mexican immigrants lived in three major metropolitan areas in 2011: greater Los Angeles, Dallas and Chicago, according to migrationinformation.org.

 

There were about 684,000 Mexican immigrants in Chicago accounted for in 2011, according to migrantioninformation.org. Many of them reside in Pilsen and Little Village, and most of them have a story to tell.

 

From the cafes they’ve opened and kept alive, to food cart sales in the winter, to the families they’ve raised, to the decisions they made about living in a city filled with gang violence not different from the violence in their home countries, Chicago’s Mexicans hold a piece of history waiting to be told.