Navajo Nation sees tax on junk food as way to combat health problems

Navajo Nation's junk food tax – the first of its kind nationwide – worries some residents

On a weekday shopping trip to the only real grocery store for 30 miles, Ann Neagle paused before a bag of Red Delicious apples, $7 for a dozen, plus a new discount — the Navajo Nation lifted the 5% sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables.

That's the carrot in the tribe's attempt to curb rampant obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Next comes the stick: A 2% tax on junk food.

That tax, the first of its kind nationwide, will hit one of the most economically depressed areas in the country, where more than 40% of people are unemployed. Neagle is worried.

"Less money for fruits is nice, but it doesn't even out," she said. "For people on a fixed income, we can't afford things to get more expensive."

She's not alone. About 42% of the Navajo Nation lives below the federal poverty line. For many in the tribe, a limited budget and few stores to choose from — the U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared parts of the vast reservation a food desert — mean gas stations and convenience stores are their primary grocers.

For the $7 she could spend on a dozen apples, Neagle, 54, could stretch her dollar further in the prepared and processed food aisles: $7 would buy more than 30 boxes of Maruchan Ramen Noodles or seven frozen Banquet Value Meals — one of which carried 480 calories and one-third of the daily dietary recommendations for sodium and fat.

That equation plays out daily across the country for college students, the working poor and those, like Neagle, whose access to fresh produce is limited. But a health epidemic among the Navajo reservation's 175,000 residents moved lawmakers here, after a tough legislative battle, to give the junk food tax a try.

The tribe hasn't set a date for the tax to go into effect. A tribal tax commission still has to give its final approval, but that step is viewed as a formality.

Nailing down what is and isn't junk food hasn't been easy. Tribal council members said soft drink industry lobbyists urged them keep soda and sports drinks out of the legislation.

They resisted, and now those drinks join a host of foods designated as "minimal-to-no nutritional value food." They define that as sweetened beverages and snacks high in salt, saturated fat and sugar. In practice, that encompasses predictable items such as frozen desserts, fried food, potato chips and candy.

But the act also targets diet soda, fruit juice, nuts and sugar-free Jell-O. It is up for reauthorization in 2020.

"It's not going to do anything except make it more expensive," said Preston Yazzie, 20. "I'll still buy chips or whatever. But maybe it'll help some people."

One mile from the Navajo tribal council chambers, at the Arizona-based chain Bashas' Grocery on tribal land, most of the items at the front of the store and advertised in the weekly circular would be subject to the new tax.

Racks of canned Vienna sausage and corned beef hash greeted shoppers. Behind them, a veritable taxation bonanza of soda, including discount brands such as Fiesta! as well as Coke and Pepsi. The rest of the store was similar to a typical grocery layout, though processed items such as chicken nuggets appeared in the meat aisle.

Shoppers "go crazy for those hot Cheetos," a grocery clerk said.

The store's arrangement and selection concerned community health advocate Denisa Livingston enough that she led tribal government officials on tours to show the dearth of healthy inventory.

"When people would fly to other places, they'd bring back [nonperishable] food from Whole Foods or healthy places," Livingston said. "That was their best access to anything that wasn't really bad for them."

The people who live here understand the problem. A Navajo Nation survey found 74% of people on the reservation think health problems are caused by lack of healthy food.

"It's just gotten worse and worse," Livingston said.

To understand how the Navajo Nation got here, it's important to understand its relationship with food.

Navajo society was for a time largely agrarian, a fact reflected in part of the Navajo creation story: A starving people from another world were met by a turkey, who shook out four corn kernels from beneath its wings, saving them.

Navajo society relied on sheep and cattle, as well as corn. Then, in the 1920s and '30s, the U.S. government began setting limits on livestock, explained at the time as a way to preserve eroding and overgrazed soil.

On the reservation, just 7% of residents have a college degree, significantly affecting their job prospects.

Proponents hope the junk food tax will mark a turning point for the nation's largest tribe. Revenue will go into a community health fund to pay for infrastructure improvements on the reservation and educational programming.

Livingston said the money could be spent on farmers markets and vegetable gardens, exercise equipment, community food cooperatives and youth health and sports clubs.

Legislator Jonathan Nez demonstrates the power of healthy eating. Four years ago, Nez weighed 300 pounds. His diet was heavy on chips, fast food and soda, things he knew were bad for him but were also easy to get and close at hand.

He started eating chicken, fish and vegetables, purging his cabinets of high-fat, high-sugar snacks. Today, he won't give his exact weight, but he rides a bike and runs, two activities almost unimaginable to him in 2010.

"If they put this tax in front of me then, I probably would have opposed it," Nez said with a laugh. "I know I would have."

But as with his personal life, Nez said, he knows that reversing years of a poor diet won't happen overnight.

"It's a long haul," he said. "But we'll get there."

nigel.duara@latimes.com

Twitter: @nigelduara

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