/ Modified apr 10, 2015 4:39 p.m.

Navajo Nation 'Junk Food' Tax Clashes with Economics

Half of population living in poverty; for them, snack foods are cheaper than fresh, healthy products.

Navajo Nation map SPOT (PHOTO: Public domain)

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By Laurel Morales, Fronteras Desk

The Navajo Nation started taxing snack foods and soda this month, as a way of Navajo trying to trim obesity rates that are almost three times the national average.

But for many Navajos, the issue goes beyond health. Half the tribe lives at or below the federal poverty level, and that means many cannot afford healthy foods, which tend to be more costly.

That's the case for Harriett Benally, seen standing outside a convenience store in Tuba City on the Northern Arizona reservation. She was asked what were her favorite snacks.

"For me it’s Funions and soda," Benally said, for which she will be charged a 2 percent tax. "To be honest, it’s not going to be a good thing because mostly everyone loves that around here. It’s like where all their money goes and food stamps."

It’s where Norman Bryant Begay said his food stamps go until they run out.

"I have to bum around like you know panhandle," said Begay, who is unemployed. "That’s what I do right now. I don’t want to be going around to people’s houses asking for food, you know. That’s not good."

The tribe has given people an incentive to buy fresh fruits and vegetables by removing a 5 percent sales tax on those items. One in three Navajo people suffers from diabetes, according to the Indian Health Service.

More direct efforts at eancouraging healthy eating also are under way.

Tribal member Jerri Yazzie said she works to teach families how to eat better.

"I would like to see more fresh fruits and vegetables out there, more options, like the store here," Yazzie said. "It’s not often that you see much of a variety."

A recent survey found 80 percent of the Navajo grocery stores’ inventory qualified as "junk food," meaning items 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.

Denisa Livingston, a spokeswoman for the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, a grassroots group that pushed for the tax, said some tribal members will drive off the reservation to go to a decent grocery store.

"When people have to drive that many miles across the Navajo Nation in this food desert, it definitely is discouraging because healthy fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy foods will not last a very long time when you have to take it back hundreds of miles across the Navajo Nation," she said.

The tribe hopes to generate $2 million to $3 million a year from the junk food tax, with a plan to spend a good deal of it on farm initiatives such as the North Leupp Family Farms, run by tribal member Stacey Jensen.

Jensen said his hope is people return to their roots. The Navajo, after all, have traditionally lived off the land, as he and his family have.

"When I was younger, I followed my flock of sheep around here so I herded sheep here," he said. "We had our livestock and then had the corn fields."

Jensen has helped about 30 families return to subsistence farming and eating healthier foods.

"Just seeing the folks having a hard time with illness because of the lack of food, the lack of good food," he said, "that keeps me coming out here and doing this."

Jensen said he hopes his farm and the revenue raised from the snack food tax will encourage more farmers across the Navajo Nation.

*Fronteras Desk is a collaborative effort of public broadcasting entities in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas, including Arizona Public Media."

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