The Navajo Nation's Tax On Junk Food Splits Reservation
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This month, the Navajo Nation started taxing junk food and soda. No other tribe and only one city, Berkeley, Calif., has successfully passed such a measure. Navajo leaders are trying to trim obesity rates that are almost three times the national average. But as Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports, half of the tribe is unemployed, and many say they can't afford healthier food.
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Relentless winds stir up red dust in the northern Arizona town of Tuba City. Harriet Benally squints to keep the dirt from blowing in her eyes. She stands outside the town's grocery store.
What are your favorite snacks?
HARRIET BENALLY: Well, for me it's Funyuns and soda.
MORALES: Benally will now be charged an extra 2 percent tax for her Funyuns and soda.
BENALLY: To be honest, it's not going to be a good thing 'cause mostly everyone loves that around here. It's like where all their money goes and food stamps.
MORALES: It's where Norman Bryant Begay's food stamps go until they run out.
NORMAN BRYANT BEGAY: I have to bum around like, you know, panhandle. That's what I do right now.
MORALES: Begay is unemployed and, like half the tribe, lives below the federal poverty level.
BEGAY: I don't want to be going around at people's houses asking for food, you know? That's not good.
MORALES: 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. Tribal member Jerri Yazzie teaches families how to eat better.
JERRI YAZZIE: I would like to see more fresh fruits and vegetables out there - more options like the store here, you know? It's not often that you see much of a variety.
MORALES: 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. Denisa Livingston is a spokeswoman for the Dine Community Advocacy Alliance, a grassroots group that pushed for the tax. She says some will drive off the reservation to go to a decent grocery store.
DENISA LIVINGSTON: 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.
MORALES: The tribe hopes to generate $2 to $3 million a year from the junk food tax. And they plan to spend much of the money on farm initiatives like this one in Leupp, Ariz. Stacey Jensen, who runs the North Leupp Family Farms, picks onions in his wind-rattled greenhouse. He says Navajo people have traditionally lived off the land.
STACEY JENSEN: When I was younger, I followed my flock of sheep around here. So I herded sheep here. We had our livestock and then had the cornfields as well as, you know, jackrabbits and cottontails and (laughter).
MORALES: Jensen has helped about 30 families return to subsistence farming and eat healthier foods.
JENSEN: Just seeing, you know, the folks, you know, having a hard time with illnesses because, you know, the lack of food - the lack of good food that keeps me coming out here and doing this.
MORALES: Jensen hopes his farm and the revenue raised from the junk food tax will encourage more farmers like him throughout the Navajo Nation. For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.
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