California's Confusing Food Taxes: Why You're Paying Extra For That Breakfast Sandwich

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Wed, Apr 4, 2012 at 8:51 AM
click to enlarge Hot? Taxed. Savory? Taxed. - BECKY LUIGART-STAYNER
  • Becky Luigart-Stayner
  • Hot? Taxed. Savory? Taxed.

Have you ever wondered why a sandwich that has been zapped in a convenience store microwave is taxed at a higher rate than one that isn't? Or why you pay a different price based on your answer to the question "For here or to-go?" (...Oh you didn't notice the difference? Well, that's probably why Californians pay the highest sales tax in the nation--START PAYING ATTENTION TO THIS STUFF, PEOPLE.)

This week, our northern sibling, SF Weekly, pulls back the curtain at the California Board of Equalization and attempts to wade through California's murky food tax laws. It's actually quite riveting!

The cities of Pico Rivera and South Gate here in Los Angeles are taxed at a higher rate than any in the state--a whopping 10.75, according to the California Board of Equalization--even higher than the 8.5% SF Weekly grouses about.

California's byzantine food tax structure is vaguely irritating for the average consumer, like tax attorney William Weissman, who noticed he was being taxed at a higher rate than the stiff swilling coffee next to him simply because his beverage of choice was hot chocolate. It is serious business, too, for the retailer that has to fret over which items qualify as a food products (cake decorations? seltzer water?) in order to pass the right percentage on to the state.

The biggest problem, though, is that it hurts the poor and benefits the rich.

Joe Eskenazi's story asks a lot of interesting questions about why foods from high-end grocery stores are not taxed while a burger from McDonalds is, and whether we would all be a lot better off if we just followed Hawaii's lead and broadened the tax base (spoiler alert: we would be). We recommend you go ahead and check it out for yourself.

Whet your appetite with this helpful food chart spelling out what city residents are being taxed for and when, created by the good folks up in SF.

[@tessaestuart / tstuart@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]

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