Recently, the Navajo Nation made national news by taxing junk food and soda. The tax is an effort to tackle obesity rates that are nearly triple the national average. Nearly half the tribe is unemployed, and the nation is defined by the USDA as a “food desert.” While the tax has drawn acclaim from public health proponents, it has split tribal members.
NPR reports (audio and written dispatch):
“To be honest, it’s not going to be a good thing cuz (sic) mostly everyone loves that around here,” says Harriet Benally, who will now be charged an extra 2 percent tax for her Funyuns’ chips and soda. “It’s like where all their money goes and food stamp.”
In an effort to encourage the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, the tribe has removed sales tax on those items. But access remains an issue. There’s also the issue of keeping perishable items fresh; about 15,000 of the nation’s families live in homes that lack electricity.
A recent survey found 80 percent of the Navajo grocery stores’ inventory qualified as junk food—that’s food with little to no nutritional value. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has labeled the entire Navajo Nation a “food desert,” because of the lack of healthy foods. The rural reservation is the size of West Virginia with only 10 grocery stores. Many people rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants.
Some of the money raised from the tax will be returned to community-based food projects. Some advocates of the sustainable farming methods that have traditionally been used by the Navajo hope that the tax dollars and the policy will encourage more families to return to the land. They’re providing resources and training to support that effort.