In the middle of the shrubby New Mexican desert on the Navajo Nation, a gas station sat beneath a cloudless blue sky, a sign in the window advertising “Blazin’ Hot Breakfast Sausage.”
A woman crossed the parking lot with a box of pizza in her hand past a gang of dusty, four-wheel drive trucks idling in the spring sunshine. Her passenger followed closely behind with an energy drink in each hand.
“They have milk, eggs…this mini deli in the back where they make their own burritos,” customer Suzetta Smith said. “And they have little sandwiches that you can heat up in the microwave. They don’t sell veggies, like the kind that we want,” at the gas station. If they do, she said, they’re usually expired.
Smith lives just down the road from the station in the town of Newcomb, population 339, where she cares for her parents. When she can’t make the 45-minute drive to the grocery store in Shiprock, New Mexico, she says she turns to the local convenience store for food.
“Sandwich stuff like bologna, loaf of bread, processed cheese,” Smith said. “If you want to eat something quickly you just go to the store and heat it up.”
Almost 300,000 people call the Navajo Nation home. The reservation is nearly the size of Panama and straddles Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, but contains only 10 grocery stores and scores of gas stations, convenience stores and trading posts. More than 80 percent of the food sold on the Nation qualifies as “junk food”— products high in salt, fat and sugar—and Navajo citizens struggle with disproportionately high rates of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
But on April 1, the Healthy Dine Nation Act, colloquially known as the “junk food tax,” took effect in the Navajo Nation, adding a two percent tax to unhealthy foods like chips, candy and soda while eliminating taxes on healthy items like fresh fruits and vegetables. Apart from Berkeley, California, the tribe is the first community in the U.S. to enact such a tax, and the only nation besides Mexico to enact a tax aimed at combating nutritionally-related health problems.
It is expected to generate up to $3 million a year, and lays bare just how much food insecurity impacts Native communities in the United States. But it also raises questions about whether a small tax increase can make real change—or if it simply raises prices on the captive residents of a food desert.
Photo credit: Jason Asenap
“Every Navajo family is affected by obesity or diabetes,” said Denisa Livingston, a spokesperson with Dine Community Advocacy Alliance (DCAA) and an architect of the Healthy Dine Nation Act. “We’re taking ownership of our health issues and not looking to other programs or even the government. We’re taking it into our own hands because our own people are suffering.”
Taxing unhealthy foods has long been on governments’ agendas across the country. But how much good is a junk food tax in a place where the only thing to buy is junk food?
Tribal members have always practiced agriculture, adopting livestock herding after the introduction of sheep and horses by the Spanish. That prosperity was taken away when U.S forces attempted to remove the Navajo from their homes during Manifest Destiny by slaughtering livestock, burning farms, and forcibly marching families off their land to internment camps. When the Navajo returned from those camps, their way of life had been destroyed and many families turned to the United States government for food as tribal members began to build their farms again from scratch.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, Navajo herds were forcibly reduced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs after officials argued that livestock overgrazing caused dust-bowl-like conditions. During that time, Navajo tribal members were estimated to own nearly 1.3 million sheep and goats. Reductions by the BIA cut those numbers by half.
“When we lose balance [and we lose] respect and reverence for food and for plants, it causes an imbalance with our Navajo society,” Crystalyne Curley, an analyst with the Dine Policy Institute, said. “In Navajo, you call [those imbalances] monsters. These are monsters that come out into the world, like diabetes and heart problems, and they come to be because there’s an imbalance in the world.”
The mass killings destroyed much of the Navajo economy and made many tribal members further reliant on non-indigenous foods. Over the following decades, grocery stores made their way to the Nation. There are only a handful today. In 2012 the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) identified almost the entire Navajo Nation as a food desert.
“We don’t have a choice,” Curley said. “People say, ‘Why do you get junk food?’ Well, that’s the only thing available in stores. If we want fresh fruits or vegetables, they’re either outdated or they don’t have what we need or it’s too expensive.”
Photo credit: Jason Asenap
According to the Indian Health Service, one in three Navajos is either pre-diabetic or has been diagnosed with Type II diabetes. The Navajo Nation reported that the second leading cause of death among Navajo citizens in 2009 was heart disease. That same year, the USDA reported that 15 to 20 percent of Navajo youth were morbidly obese.
“The evidence shows that consuming sugar-sweetened beverages causes increases in sugar, fat and sodium into the diet and we know that the sugar-sweetened beverages have been linked to Type II diabetes and obesity,” University of Illinois public health professor Lisa Powell said. “Any policies aimed at changing behavior so that individuals are consuming fewer of these items and replacing them with healthy items have the potential to reduce these health risks.”
Which is what the tax aims to do: Raise prices on unhealthy products in order to drive consumers to healthy items. The question is: Does it work?
In Berkeley, a similar tax has been on the books since January, which is too soon to tell how effective it’s been curbing consumption habits. But affluent Berkeley has something going for it the Navajo Nation does not: Consumers have the access—and the cash—for pricey alternatives like organic farmer’s markets, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
In Mexico City, a one-peso-per-liter tax on sugar-sweetened beverages has been in effect since the beginning of 2014, and it’s getting results. In 2008, the United Nations reported that Mexico had some of the highest rates of obesity in the world, and researchers identified sugary beverages as one of the epidemic’s major offenders. Yet just a few months after the soda tax took effect, Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health found that consumption of sugary drinks dropped by 10 percent while purchases of plain water increased by 13 percent. Meanwhile, sales of untaxed drinks without added sugar went up by 7 percent. That means in densely populated areas like Mexico City, the tax seems to have sway over people’s diets, in part because of a wealth of alternatives. And while the city is only taxing sugary beverages, the move may inform future conversations about more holistic junk food taxes.
On the Navajo Nation, a 2 percent tax increase doesn’t translate to dramatically higher prices: a can of soda that was $1.00 is now $1.07, including the new tax and current sales tax of 5 percent. But it’s not the price increase so much as the lack of alternatives that challenges the tax’s usefulness. Grocery store access is still a major problem, and with a population on par with Lexington, Kentucky spread across an area the size of West Virginia, building more grocery stores is a hard sell.
“The tax may not translate into the kind of change in diet quality we would like to see,” Powell said. “There’s limited access, as opposed to if that tax were to take place in an area where there was a large supermarket and a lot of alternatives.”
“My dad is diabetic and my mom has high blood pressure,” Suzetta Smith said as she thought about the service station and the items it sold. “I kind of have to [buy lean meat] and that’s hard to find on the reservation. Like ground, lean beef? Like a lot of those meats? Sometimes we just have to go with processed food.”
According to Smith, the new tax may influence her decision on what she buys, but she’s not as hopeful about her neighbors’ habits changing.
“[Tribal citizens] get their resources from food assistance,” Smith said. “It’s not coming from their own pocket. They’re still going to buy junk food. I don’t think it’s going to make them think healthy.”
On April 14, the Navajo Nation Budget and Finance Committee met in Window Rock, Arizona—the capital of the Navajo Nation—and approved the Healthy Dine Nation Community Wellness Development Projects Fund. Of the estimated $3 million that will be generated in the next year off the junk food tax, half of that money will be available to communities on the Nation to begin wellness projects.
“They can make improvements to their basketball court, or they can approve a new one,” Livingston said. “Traditional and non-traditional healthy food cooking classes. Healthy food preservation and even skate parks if they want to build a park.”
Funds can also go to fitness classes, swimming pools or even partnerships with mobile grocery stores in lieu of brick and mortar businesses. But despite these positive changes, the structural obstacles—poverty, education, a farflung population spread across 27,000 miles—makes behavior change through policy an uphill battle. Ultimately, the problem isn’t reducing demand of junk food so much as upping the supply of healthy food—and the ability to do the latter has serious implications for the Navajo’s future.
“If we can’t feed ourselves or our people,” Curley said, “then we’re not really a sovereign nation.”
Update: An earlier version of this story did not include the current sales tax when calculating the new price for a can of soda. It has been corrected to reflect that number.
Lead photo: nebirdsplus on Flickr Creative Commons
Tristan Ahtone is an award-winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Born in Arizona and raised across the United States, he was educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Columbia School of Journalism, and serves as the Vice President of the Native American Journalists Association.