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Originally published July 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 29, 2009 at 6:37 AM

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Danny Westneat

Who's left holding the bag fee

The story of the Seattle grocery-bag-fee campaign is playing out like this: Big out-of-town polluters versus local greens. If you vote for...

Seattle Times staff columnist

The story of the Seattle grocery-bag-fee campaign is playing out like this: Big out-of-town polluters versus local greens.

If you vote for a 20-cent fee on plastic and paper bags, says the Seattle Green Bag Campaign, you're with the locals. Otherwise, you're with Big Oil (which has clumsily dumped an obscene $1.3 million into the referendum.)

"Send a message to Big Oil: Hands off Seattle!" says the Web site for the bag-fee measure, greenbagcampaign.org.

But along comes a plot twist.

Andrea Caupain isn't interested in the spin of this side or that. As executive director of one of Seattle's pioneering anti-poverty programs, she's got mouths to feed — at last count, 735 each week.

Sometimes she finds people have slept all night outside her office, because they're hungry or have nowhere else to stay.

So her group — the Central Area Motivation Program (CAMP), which runs a food bank and home-heating assistance center — decided to explore the bag-fee idea for itself.

"We wanted to get ahead of the issue and ask: How will this affect our clients, the low-income?" Caupain says. "We hadn't seen anyone look at this in depth, only people making arguments to support their side."

CAMP tried an experiment. Its food bank handed out hundreds of reusable canvas tote bags.

Patrons were told to use them when picking up food, and that the agency would stop providing paper or plastic bags due to the expense of the coming bag fee (this was back when the City Council first approved the fee).

For six months, staffers tracked what happened.

"It was not good," she says.

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Most people did not bring back the canvas bags. Usually the explanation had something to do with the struggles of being poor. They had moved repeatedly. They had no car or other place to store it. Someone stole it.

"We weren't about to deny them food if they didn't bring back their reusable bags," Caupain said. "We didn't push it to the limit. But we could see that if there was a tax on grocery bags, these are the people who would end up paying it."

Caupain told me this story to explain why CAMP has come out against the bag-fee measure. As near as I can tell, it's the first Seattle group not related to business or the store industry to cross the establishment and urge a "no" vote on Aug. 18.

CAMP's board is aware the city intends to give out free bags. It also spoke of the need to help the environment.

But in the end it agreed that putting another "pressure point" on the poor — especially one tied up with the buying of basic sustenance — isn't worth the green benefits. (This is the same reason New York City tabled a bag fee.)

CAMP expects flak for its stance in green Seattle. This week an op-ed by two local environmentalists said the claim that bag fees will harm poor people is "utter rubbish" spread by "Exxon, Chevron, DuPont and their fellow behemoths in the American Chemistry Council."

"We're in the crossfire a little bit," Caupain said. "But we feel we made the right call. We think it will disproportionately impact low-income people. Somebody needs to advocate for them."

For 45 years CAMP has been a homegrown fixture for Seattle's inner-city poor. It's about as far from out-of-town Big Oil as you can get. And quite the shake-up to the story of this campaign.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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