Health advocates on the Navajo Nation are moving into the second phase of implementing a “junk food” tax to try and change the health behaviors of more than 175,000 people living on the reservation.
Despite initial criticism, the Navajo Nation increased the tax on foods, such as chips, sugary sweets and sugar-sweetened drinks from 5 percent to 7 percent. The April increase was made in an effort to address the massive health issues facing the Navajo Tribe, which has some of the highest rates of diabetes, heart disease and obesity in the country. The tribe’s reservation spans parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico.
It’s a public health crisis, said Denisa Livingston of the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, which first proposed the tax, that’s further challenged by a lack of access to health care and healthy food in stores.
"The bottom line is 99 percent of our grocery stores [on the reservation] are unhealthy," she said. "What we see and what we're bombarded with, it's like we have no choice.”
The DCAA is drafting a plan to manage the funds generated by the tax. Revenues will be doled out to 110 chapter houses, set up like districts across the reservation.
An estimated $2 million to $3 million in initial revenues from the tax are expected to be produced and applied toward chapter wellness projects such as walking trails, resource libraries, community exercise equipment and equine therapy for behavioral health.
“This is innovative tribal policy approach that we knew could be used and leveraged to promote healthy eating habits in Native communities and combat dietary diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease,” said PreventObesity.net Leader Raymond Foxworth, the deputy director of First Nations Development Institute, which provided a grant to initiate the tax. “There have been other policy approaches that have attempted similar things, but this has probably been the most bold.”
‘Culture of health’
The tax is specifically meant to address unhealthy food and drink that are consumed by children.
Dr. Sonya Shin, a chronic disease specialist and director of the Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment Project in Gallup, New Mexico, says the tax targets the ‘culture of health’ for Navajo. She hopes that it will encourage the community to work toward prevention.
Shin and her team have been researching chronic diseases within the tribe. One study in particular measured the obesity rate of 600 Navajo children, ages three to six, living in the reservation's eastern region.
"What we're seeing in this younger group was the rate of combined overweight and obesity is about 70 percent,” Shin said. “If we stratify this by age, in kids ages two to four the rate is about 50 percent. In the older kids ages five and six, the rates are about 84 percent who are overweight or obese."
Overall, the Navajo childhood obesity rate is clearly increasing over time.
Opponents of the tax argued that the tax was unlikely to help improve Navajo health since there is a lack of retailers who sell healthy, affordable foods across the Nation.
But Livingston said the goal of the tax is to indirectly boost demand for cheaper, fresh foods on the reservation.
To make fresh fruits and vegetables more appealing, tribal leaders also recently eliminated tax on those items.
“It’s a slow process, and we know we’re not going to change things tomorrow, but this is coming from our people, for the people. Our money will back to our programs,” Livingston said.
Mallory Black is a San Diego-based freelance journalist and an enrolled member of the Navajo Tribe. She writes about American Indian health, culture and business for the Native Health News Alliance, Native Peoples magazine, and The Visionary Business Magazine. She is also a Communications Specialist for Student Affairs at San Diego State University.