Soda tax helps map Seattle’s healthy food environment

One goal of Seattle’s sweetened beverage tax is to expand access to healthy and affordable food. To guide allocation of tax revenues to support this goal, the City asked researchers at Public Health – Seattle & King County and the University of Washington to study the healthy food environment in Seattle neighborhoods. In their report, the researchers addressed 3 questions:

  1. Is healthy, affordable food more available in some Seattle neighborhoods than others?
  2. Who in Seattle has trouble paying for food?
  3. What are the concerns and capacities of Seattle’s food banks?

Is healthy, affordable food more available in some neighborhoods than others?

Yes, location does make a difference. Public Health researchers mapped Seattle neighborhoods where poverty, relatively long travel times, and high concentrations of food outlets with few healthy options may limit access to healthy foods.

Mapping Three Barriers to Healthy Food Access

The map identifies neighborhoods where at least 1 in 4 households lives below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (for a family of 4, income less than $50,200 in 2018, shown in pale blue on the map) and highlights neighborhoods with 1 or 2 additional barriers to accessing healthy food: (a) at least 10 minutes’ travel time to the nearest healthy food retailer; and (b) a high percentage of food retailers without a produce section.  Neighborhoods with all 3 risk factors (orange) – including South Park, Georgetown, Delridge, and High Point – were clustered around the Duwamish waterway. However, a patchwork of low-income neighborhoods with 1 additional risk factor (yellow) showed up across the city. For example, the north end has several “pocket” neighborhoods where low-income residents are surrounded by more economically secure neighbors, but may face challenges in accessing healthy foods, especially if they rely on public transportation.

Taking a different approach to the same question, University of Washington researchers conducted in-person audits of 134 food stores across the city (about 27% of all Seattle food stores) to look at the availability and costs of 25 healthy-food items such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and milk.

In-store availability

  • Healthy foods were more available in bigger stores (warehouses / superstores, supermarkets, and grocery stores) than in drug stores and small stores (convenience, gas stations).
  • Stores in low-income neighborhoods were less likely than those in middle- and upper-income areas to carry healthy food items.
  • As the neighborhood proportion of Black and Hispanic residents increased, the likelihood of finding healthy foods in stores decreased, although this tendency was not statistically significant.

When researchers looked at results by Seattle Council Districts, they found that healthy foods were least available in stores in Council District #2 (southeast Seattle, including the east bank of the Duwamish) and Council District #5 (north Seattle from Puget Sound to Lake Washington), and were most available in stores in District #4 (Northeast Seattle, including the University of Washington) and District #6 (Northwest Seattle, Ballard and adjacent communities). [Council Districts are shown on the food bank map below.]


  • In general, prices of healthy foods were lower in supermarkets than in smaller stores.
  • Although prices generally didn’t differ by neighborhood income, the costs of some healthy foods were slightly lower in low-income areas and higher in higher-income areas, and vegetables cost significantly more per pound in middle-income neighborhoods than in low-income neighborhoods.
  • While prices for most healthy foods prices were similar in neighborhoods with high, medium, and low concentrations of Black or Hispanic residents, costs for grains and eggs were lowest in neighborhoods with high concentrations of Black or Hispanic residents.

Who in Seattle has trouble paying for food?

Researchers found that the highest risk for what’s known as “food insecurity” (running out of food and not having money to buy more) occurred among people of color; families with young children; older adults; adults who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual; and in households where adults reported low income and/or low educational attainment.

However, food insecurity isn’t limited to people who qualify to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, previously called “food stamps”). Public health researchers determined that more than 13,000 Seattle residents who make too much to qualify for SNAP reported food insecurity, which didn’t drop to fairly low levels until 300% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines (less than $75,000 for a family of 4 in 2018). Among people of color, the “food security gap” was even wider, extending to 400% of Federal Poverty Guidelines.

 What are the concerns and capacities of Seattle’s food banks?

Seattle Food Banks and Areas of Concentrated Poverty

Last year, Seattle’s 30 food banks were surveyed about their capacities and demands. Respondents reported distributing a total of more than 23 million pounds of food – an underestimate of citywide distribution since not all food banks completed the survey. Combining survey data with staff interviews and client discussions in 5 languages, researchers also learned that:

  • Visits to food banks increased last year, according to more than 60% of food banks that responded to an online survey. Food bank staff specifically mentioned more visits from older adults, people who were experiencing homelessness, and those who were living near the northern and southern borders of the city.
  • To meet current demands, food banks would need to invest in staffing and salaries as well as more space and purchasing power.
  • Food banks could benefit from coordinated systems of distribution that target areas with the greatest needs (concentrations of poverty shown in darker shades of blue on the map above).
  • Clients said that they appreciate a dignified food bank experience – often described as a grocery store model that allows client choice. Clients also value food safety and quality, cultural relevance, and convenient access. Specific requests included more protein, more fruits and vegetables, options to get foods that don’t require cooking, and evening and weekend access.

At the February 27th presentation of the report’s findings to the City Council’s Finance and Neighborhood Committee, City Council members voiced concerns about food insecurity among older adults and families with children. They also expressed support for food banks, and noted their value in strengthening community connections.

Over the next several months, the City will consider applications for funding to expand access to healthy and affordable food. Coordinated with the report’s release, the City of Seattle Human Services Department released a 2019 Food and Nutrition RFP that focuses on Seattle Emergency Food Systems.

View the full slides, written report, and video of the presentation on healthy food availability and the Seattle food bank network to the Finance and Neighborhood Council Committee. The research team includes Jesse Jones-Smith, University of Washington and Nadine Chan, Public Health – Seattle & King County along with Seattle Children’s Research Institute and the UW Center for Public Health Nutrition. Communities Count provides data on food bank trends, SNAP/Basic Food participation, use of free and reduced-price school meals, WIC participation, and food insecurity/hardship in King County. 

Zero Youth Detention: New resources map the path, track progress

Two new resources support the goal of attaining Zero Youth Detention in King County:  (1) a comprehensive Road Map to Zero Youth Detention and (2) a dashboard for tracking progress.


Firmly grounded in evidence, the Road Map acknowledges that:

  • Restorative and community-driven strategies are effective and more likely than involvement with the criminal justice system to foster the development of happy, healthy adults.
  • After almost 20 years of progress in reducing juvenile detention in King County, the disparity between youth of color and white youth was larger in 2017 than in 1999.
  • In large part, this disparity persists due to the cumulative disadvantages of systemic racism related to housing, education, human services, and the juvenile legal system — systems that are meant to improve the lives of people in all communities.

What were the report’s key objectives and recommendations?

  • Lead with racial equity: Presented in the context of historic and ongoing systemic racism at every level of U.S. society, the report recommends two strategies: (a) identify and eliminate policies that result in racial disproportionality in the juvenile legal system and detention and (b) invest in training for any staff who work with youth (training covers topics such as adolescent brain development, trauma-informed services, restorative mediation, interpersonal communication, and direct supervision).
  • Prevent youth from entering the juvenile legal system. For the greatest impact, focus upstream and on systems. To enhance positive youth development and position youth for success, strong partnerships are needed between youth and families, schools and communities, and the County.
  • Divert youth from further law enforcement, formal legal processes, and secure detention into community-based options. To achieve this objective, partners in the legal system and community will need to work together to create a continuum of community-based approaches that provide for community safety and developmental needs of youth.
  • Support youth and families to reduce recurrence of legal system involvement and increase healthy outcomes. Outcomes are generally better when youth remain in their own communities rather than becoming involved with the juvenile legal system. When this has not been possible, however, family engagement and reentry supports are essential to fostering positive outcomes after youth have been in secure detention.
  • Align and optimize connections between systems to increase effectiveness. Everything works better when legal, community, social welfare, and health/mental health systems are working together.

Zero Youth Detention in Action

 The Superior Court, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, and the King County Executive have taken steps to achieve these goals. They include:

  • Screen-and-release as an alternative to detention, which enables on-call juvenile judges to review cases and release low-risk youth to responsible adults during hours when court is not in session.
  • Expansion of “Tier 2 warrants” so police do not have to book low-risk youth into detention if they miss their first court hearing; instead, after a call to the Court’s screening unit, officers may be able to get a new court date without detention.
  • Calling on techniques of “restorative justice– swift and fair accountability for harmful behavior that brings together those harmed by criminal behavior, those who caused the harm, and members of the larger community to discuss how they’ve been affected and what should be done to repair the harm.

In addition, many King County school districts are taking a less punitive approach to school discipline – something that is expected to slow the “school-to-prison pipeline.”


Launched on the final day of 2018, The Zero Youth Detention Dashboard is a public-facing tool to track progress on zero youth detention. The headline metrics for the dashboard are organized into 4 categories:

  1. The average daily number of youth in secure detention. For youth not charged as adults, this number is down from 51 per day in 2016 to 46 per day in 2017.
  2. Annual counts of youth in secure detention. While the total number is down, racial disparities have gotten worse.
  3. Annual counts of referrals (alleged new crimes) or police reports received by the Prosecuting Attorney’s office. From 2016 to 2017, total referrals were down by 144 (from 3,688 to 3,544); referrals by school districts were down by 99; and referrals for low-level or misdemeanor offenses were down by 191. Changes in referral rates differed by race/ethnicity.
  4. Annual counts of filings of charges (cases with sufficient evidence for the court to resolve) by the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Total filings declined from 2014 to 2016, and plateaued in 2017; again, changes varied by race/ethnicity.

With the Dashboard now available publicly, it’s possible to look at the numbers in different ways. The public is encouraged to provide feedback by email ( or submission of an online form. Like the Road Map, the Dashboard is a work in progress, and public scrutiny of the data from multiple perspectives should help the county move toward the goal of Zero Youth Detention.


For more information, see





Youth marijuana use: new data infographics and youth perspectives

Youth marijuana use in King County (2016)

Two new resources are now available on Public Health – Seattle and King County’s Youth Health and Marijuana website:

Among findings from the Healthy Youth Survey are:

  • Although marijuana use among youth has not gone up since retail sales of marijuana was legalized, 1 in 4 students in 12th grade report using marijuana.
  • Youth in Seattle were significantly more likely to report using marijuana than those in other King County regions (see map above).
  • Youth primarily get marijuana from friends.
  • Almost 90% of 10th graders with at least one best friend who uses marijuana report using marijuana.

Common themes that emerged in the listening sessions were:

  • Reasons youth may use marijuana..
  • Reasons youth may avoid using marijuana.
  • Youth perceptions of the risk of using marijuana.
  • Beliefs about use by other youth.
  • Perceptions about the ease of access to marijuana.
  • Where youth get their information about marijuana.
  • The kinds of information youth want about marijuana.

A key finding from the listening sessions was that youth want unbiased information from trusted, reliable sources about how marijuana works, including risks and benefits. They’re less likely to take messages seriously if they seem exaggerated or condescending.

Tracking the soda tax

Because voters passed Washington State Initiative 1634 in November, Seattle is the only city in the state that can legally tax sugar-sweetened beverages. But the Seattle tax remains in place, and its effects are being evaluated by researchers from Public Health – Seattle & King County, the University of Washington, and Children’s Hospital. According to the Seattle Times, the first 9 months of the tax generated almost $17 million in new revenue – considerably more than the original $15 million estimate for the entire year.

Photo by Josh McLain on Unsplash

The tax took effect one year ago, on January 1, 2018. Before the tax was implemented, the evaluation team collected baseline data, which they presented to Seattle City Council in August. Briefly, the report found:

  1. Beverage prices were similar in the City of Seattle and comparison areas in King County. When there were differences, Seattle prices tended to be higher. Across all areas and types of beverages, large stores had lower prices than small stores.
  2. Consumption of sugary beverages was lower in Seattle than in comparison areas and lower than the national average. The top 2 beverages consumed by Seattle children were water and flavored milk (neither subject to the new tax); among taxed beverages, Seattle children were most likely to consume soda and sugary fruit-flavored juice. These results differed from the popular impression – reported by consumer and business representatives who participated in focus groups – that sugary beverage consumption among children was common.
  3. Economic impact of the tax. While Seattle adults participating in surveys did not believe the tax would negatively affect small businesses or result in job loss, representatives of some businesses and elected officials expressed the opposite view. Business representatives gave mixed responses about whether they would absorb the tax or pass it on to clients and consumers. While consumers had mixed opinions about how the tax would affect their own purchasing and consumption behaviors, they felt the tax would financially impact low-income people and communities of color.
  4. Support for the tax. Most Seattle adults surveyed supported the Sweetened Beverage Tax and believed the tax would help improve the health and well-being of children and of the general public. Support for the tax was lower among survey participants with lower incomes and those who were non-Hispanic Black and non-Hispanic Asian.  While representatives of consumer and business groups expressed mixed support for the tax, they more consistently supported putting tax revenues toward programs to improve healthy food access for lower-income populations.

Besides raising money for nutrition education and assistance to low-income residents for the purchase of healthy foods, has the tax affected purchasing and dietary behaviors of people in Seattle? The first (6-month) evaluation report was submitted to the City in September and should become available to the public early in 2019. As reported in Community Health Indicators, results of the 2016 Healthy Youth Survey showed a decline in daily consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by King County’s middle- and high-school students before the tax took effect.

For additional data on healthy (or unhealthy) eating, see Community Health Indicators, especially sugar-sweetened beverage consumption by adults and children who drink soda or SSBs daily (8th, 10th, and 12th grades).

King County schools reduce expulsions and suspensions but disparities persist

From 2013 to 2017, Highline School District reduced the Black-white discipline gap by 4.9% — the largest decline in King County [click to expand].

This week a commission led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recommended rescinding Obama-era guidance to prevent discrimination in school discipline for minor, nonviolent offenses . Immediately after the announcement, Washington state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) countered that Washington state would continue with its efforts to reduce disproportionality in school discipline – primarily by disability status, race, and ethnicity.  According to the latest available data (from the 2016-2017 school year), the disciplinary rate for students in Special Education was 3.6% above the state average; for African American students, the difference was +3.9%; and for Hispanic students the difference was +0.6%.

“This is an equity issue,” said Washington Superintendent Chris Reykdal. “Each day a student misses class for disciplinary purposes is a day they miss learning. The bottom line is this: Rescinding the 2014 guidelines will have no effect on Washington’s laws and rules related to student discipline.”

Earlier this year, The Atlantic described the ups and downs of the Highline School District’s new approach to discipline (see chart above for disciplinary trends). Although each district’s approach will be different, the Washington state Legislature heeded the 2014 federal guidance by passing legislation in 2016 “to help close opportunity gaps in learning.”  To help schools comply with the law, OSPI updated school discipline rules earlier this year. Statewide, progress has already been made.

Between the 2012-2013 and 2016-17 school years, Washington schools have experienced:

  • a 0.6% reduction in discipline rate for all students (from 4.1% to 3.5%)
  • a 0.7% reduction in the discipline rate for Special Education students (from 7.8% to 7.1%)
  • a 2.3% reduction in the Black/White difference in disciplinary rates (from 6.7% to 4.4%)
    • a 2.8% reduction in the discipline rate for Black students (from 10.2% to 7.4%)
    • a 0.5% reduction in the discipline rate for white students (from 3.5% to 3.0%)
  • a 0.4 point reduction in the ratio of Black to white students disciplined (from 2.9-to-1 in 2013 to 2.5-to-1 in 2017)
  • a 0.9% reduction in the discipline rate for Hispanic students (from 5.0% in 2013 to 4.1% in 2017)

How do King County schools compare? Using data from the OSPI website, the following table shows 2013-2017 changes and 2017 discipline rates for Washington state and King County. Data were available for 18 of 19 King County school districts. For easy comparison, data cells are colored blue if they show changes or rates that were as good as or better than those in Washington state; yellow indicates that changes or rates were worse than those for the Washington overall.

From 2013 to 2017, rates of suspensions and expulsions declined in 13 of 18 King County school districts (change in WA state rate = -.6%).

  • The largest declines were in Highline (-4.0%) and Kent (-2.9%) districts.
  • All but two of the declines were at least as large as the -.6% statewide decline.
  • Overall disciplinary rates did not decline in Enumclaw, Issaquah, Vashon, Snoqualmie Valley, and Riverview. In all of these districts except Enumclaw, the 2017 discipline rate was lower than the 2017 rate for the state.
  • Despite declines in discipline rates from 2013 to 2017, rates in 4 districts (Seattle, Federal Way, Renton, and Tukwila) exceeded the 2017 state discipline rate.

Rates of suspensions and expulsions for special education students declined in 13 of 18 King County districts (change in WA state rate = -0.7%).

  • The largest declines for Special Education students were in Highline (-7.3%), Kent (-6.2%), Bellevue (-6.1%), and Seattle (-4.1%).
  • All declines in King County districts were larger than the -.7% statewide decline.
  • Disciplinary rates for Special Education students did not decline in Issaquah, Vashon, Enumclaw, Riverview, and Snoqualmie Valley. In all these districts, however, the 2017 rate was lower than the 2017 rate for the state.
  • Despite declines in discipline rates among Special Education students between 2013 and 2017, the 2017 rates in Federal Way and Renton exceeded the 2017 state rate for Special Education students.

To avoid artificial inflation of percentages due to small numbers, we excluded districts with fewer than 100 Black students from comparisons of (a) 2013-to-2017 changes in the Black-white discipline gap and (b) calculations of the 2017 ratios of Black-to-white discipline rates. Districts with fewer than 100 Black students (with 2017 counts in parentheses) were: Enumclaw (35), Mercer Island (64 in 2015; no data for 2016 or 2017), Riverview (20), Snoqualmie Valley (57), and Vashon (no data for Blacks in any year).

The disciplinary gap between Black and white students declined in 11 of 13 King County districts with ≥100 Black students [change in WA state Black/white disciplinary gap = -2.3%]

  • In 6 of those districts, the decline in the Black-white disciplinary gap exceeded the statewide decline.
  • The largest declines in the Black-white gap were in Highline (-4.9%), Bellevue (-3.9%), Seattle (-3.3%), and Kent (-3.1%) districts.
  • Despite declines in the Black-white disciplinary gap, the size of the 2017 gap exceeded the state gap in Kent, Seattle, Federal Way, and Renton.
  • Districts where the Black-white disciplinary gap did not decline were Tukwila (+3.7%) and Issaquah (+1.4%). The size of the 2017 gap in Tuikwila exceeded the state gap.

Despite many improvements in disciplinary rates in King County districts, the ratio of Black to white students who were disciplined in 2017 exceeded the state’s 2.5-to-1 ratio in 5 of the 13 districts for which data were available.  Only 5 school districts had 2017 Black/white disciplinary ratios lower than 2-to-1.

  • Two of the 5 districts with Black/white disciplinary ratios below 2-to-1 in 2017 (Lake Washington and Northshore) also had ratios below 2-to-1 in 2013.
  • Tukwila’s Black/white disciplinary ratio rose from 1.3-to-1 in 2013 to 2.3-to-1 in 2017.
  • In Bellevue, Highline, and Tahoma, 2017 Black-to-white ratios below 2-to-1 reflected improvement between 2013 and 2017.

With this week’s announcement the state made it clear that, although generally promising, progress toward equity is just beginning. While districts like Highline began exploring alternatives to expulsion and out-of-school suspension as early as 2013, others have maintained zero-tolerance policies that lead to suspension even for minor infractions. Starting in the 2019-2020 school year, districts will have to eliminate zero-tolerance approaches that mandate suspension or expulsion for any behavior other than firearms violations. According to Superintendent Reykdal, OSPI will continue “enforcement of civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in the administration of student discipline.”

For information about discipline rates in King County school districts, see Communities Count’s School Suspension & Expulsion indicator.