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Navajos’ new junk food tax could offer a healthier path for everyone

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The rest of the country should pay attention to what happens on the Navajo Nation following the institution of the junk food tax, which passed last week. They may lead the way for the rest of America in the fight against obesity and related chronic disease.

Across the country, the call for taxation of junk foods has mostly come from politicians and public health authorities but, on the Navajo reservation, a grassroots group called the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance has been working for over two years to establish such a tax to improve the health of the Diné, or Navajo, people.

The alliance is made up of mostly women, including many grandmothers and great-grandmothers. They drive and hitch rides across the dirt roads of the 27,000-square-mile Navajo reservation in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to gather support. The largest reservation in the country, the Navajo Nation is divided up into 110 local governances, called chapters, and alliance members have been methodically showing up at chapter meetings to present their message.

The Diné Community Advocacy Alliance has accomplished something that others with more money, power and influence have failed to do: establish a tax on junk food.

The stakes are high for the Navajo: Over the past 20 years, the obesity rate in the United States has soared, along with associated medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, renal failure and depression. Native American communities bear a disproportionate burden of this epidemic. They suffer from diabetes at twice the rate of the rest of the U.S. population. These rates are particularly high among tribes in the Southwest, including the Navajo.

There are many reasons why this is happening, but there is a well-established link between poverty and obesity, and the convenience and low price of high-calorie foods certainly contribute. Forty percent of people on the reservation live in poverty and half of working-age adults are unemployed. Two bills came up before the council last week and both passed with a wide margin. The first is “The Healthy Diné Nation Act of 2013,” which will impose an additional two percent sales tax on junk food items in addition to the current sales tax of 5 percent. Junk food is defined as “sweetened beverages and … snacks low in essential nutrients, and high in salt, fat and sugar, including snack chips, candy, cookies and pastries.” The proceeds will be divided up by chapter and earmarked for wellness-related projects.

The second legislation, “The Elimination Of The Sales Tax On Fresh Fruits, Fresh Vegetables, Water Nuts, Seeds And Nut Butters,” will eliminate the sales tax on these products. Assuming the president signs both, they will soon become law, and a law that the rest of the country should follow.

Not surprisingly, the legislation has faced pushback. As in other parts of the country, the beverage industry has hired locals as lobbyists to come out against this tax, labeling it as paternalistic and regressive, while offering money to fund wellness projects.

The prime sponsor of the legislation, Council Delegate Danny Simpson, sees it as an issue of self-determination. He says, “My dad was diabetic. And my mom always told us ‘Later on, you’re not going to get these free services from the government, especially [health care from] the Indian Health Service.’ They always said that you had to take care of yourself. And to this day it’s happening; the funding for IHS is going down.”

Simpson has seen the IHS do intensive education and exercise campaigns to promote a healthy lifestyle, “But it’s not working. So how do we get the government involved now? … Every single day, we see our Navajo people at these dialysis centers, we see our Navajo people with limbs amputated. We see that every day. What more do we need to see as a council to address this issue?”

Let’s watch what happens as the Navajo Nation leads the rest of the United States toward a healthier path forward.

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