San Francisco Chronicle
September 29, 1937 - February 10, 2023
Harry M. Snyder, whose work as a consumer and public health advocate brought positive change to the lives and health of Californians, passed away peacefully at his home surrounded by family on Friday, February 10, 2023. He was 85.
Snyder was born in Los Angeles in 1937. His father Paul Snyder was a salesman and a plumber, and his mother Ruth C. Snyder later became an artist. He attended Hamilton High School and then University of Southern California, receiving a law degree from UCLA. In 1970, Snyder joined the Peace Corps as an associate director and later as a director. With his wife Vivian and their children, Snyder moved first to Bangalore, India, then Apia, Western Samoa and Kathmandu, Nepal. Snyder led the various Peace Corps offices, worked with country staff and local diplomats, and coordinated volunteers who worked to support small business, education, agriculture and government function.
In 1975, Snyder drove overland from Kathmandu to Paris in a Volkswagen van with his family and later established a new home in Mill Valley, California.
Snyder became West Coast Director of Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, in 1976, where he built a reputation in the state legislature and corporate headquarters as one of California’s most tenacious and outspoken consumer lobbyists. During his tenure, he sought tougher regulations on utilities, insurers and business interests, institutions he frequently charged with fear-mongering and gouging Californians.
He led a class action lawsuit against Wells Fargo Bank for allegedly denying checking accounts to customers without credit cards, and successfully ended all-adult mobile home parks, which he said, deprived families access to low-income housing. He took on dairy price fixing, pressed for affordable earthquake insurance, and held for-profit health care providers accountable to their promises when they converted from nonprofits.
He was serious about his advocacy but approached his work with humor.
“Free the Cheese,” was his 1981 slogan at Consumers Union in a successful push to get the federal government to release 30 million pounds of Cheddar cheese stored in federal warehouses for distribution to needy families across the country. Pressing for distribution of surplus food to low-income people was an important cause for Snyder. He also lobbied for the passage of federal and state laws to establish Certified Farmers Markets.
“An act of kindness this is not,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle after a successful push to get Blue Shield health insurer to offer benefits for specific medical problems and to end waiting periods for pre-existing conditions.
In 2002, when he retired at 65 from Consumers Union, the LA Times headline read: “Activist Retires From Consumer Group but Not Fray.”
For the next two decades, Snyder continued to fight for marginalized and underrepresented Californians. He taught advocacy at UC Berkeley School of Public Health, co-creating a broader Advocacy Initiative at the school to help leaders learn how to bring about evidence-based systemic policy change. Hundreds of students who participated in the school’s Health Policy Advocacy seminars went on to become public health advocates themselves. In 2020 he co-authored “Advocacy for Public Health Policy Change: An Urgent Imperative,” published by the American Public Health Association.
Snyder also was the principal at Cy Pres Funds, distributing more than $70 million in fines from class action lawsuits to the appropriate recipients.
Harry and his wife Vivian Snyder were long time students and practitioners of Vipassana meditation under the guidance of their teacher S.N. Goenka. For decades they taught 10 day meditation courses in Vipassana centers and in prisons.
They moved to Santa Cruz, California in 2013 and, while continuing his work, enjoyed traveling with grandchildren, hiking at Point Reyes, gardening and reading.
Harry Snyder is survived by his wife Vivian C. Snyder, his three children and his eight grandchildren.