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Navajo Nation Hikes Tax Rate on Junk Food and Incentivizes Healthy Eating

February 3, 2016 |

Since 2012 the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance has worked to help people within the Navajo Nation stay healthy throughout their lives. But in 2014, the DCAA took their advocacy a step further by enacting a two percent tax on unhealthy foods. Image courtesy of Diné Community Advocacy Alliance.

In 2014, the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance enacted a two percent tax on unhealthy foods. Image courtesy of Diné Community Advocacy Alliance.

Since March 2012, the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance has worked to help people within the Navajo Nation stay healthy throughout their lives. But in 2014, the DCAA took their advocacy a step further by enacting a two percent tax on unhealthy foods and a five percent tax break on healthy foods.

“As a response to the diabetes epidemic, the dominant culture of unhealthy foods in our stores, and our Navajo Nation being a 99 percent food desert, we decided to address unhealthy foods in our community,” says Denisa Livingston, DCAA community health advocate. “The tax helps bring awareness to the epidemic and could draw more focus on reducing the prevalence of obesity and diabetes, and eventually, impact these incidences.”

Foods that are part of the tax include:

  • Beverages: soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, flavored water, iced teas, iced coffees, fruit juices, vegetable juices, flavored dairy drinks, alcoholic-free and alcoholic drinks, etc. 
  • Sweets: candy, frozen desserts, pastries, cakes, puddings, etc.
  • Chips and crisps that are baked or toasted, fried products, etc.
  • Fast food and foods, such as canned meats, etc.
  • Food additions, such as salt, sugar, and sweeteners

The following foods are untaxed:

  • Fresh fruits
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Nut Butters
  • Seeds
  • Water
  • Other culturally significant foods, such as blue, yellow, and white corn, posole, sumac berries, juniper ash, chili, spices, and ethnic foods

In addition to the tax break and increased tax, DCAA also is working to get a Community Wellness Development Projects Fund Management Plan up and running. These projects were put in place to improve the physical and social environment of the community.

While the tax is now well-received, it wasn’t at first. 

“The ‘junk food’ or ‘junk food tax’ was not an accepted approach — it was taken as a negative connotation,” Livingston says. “We decided we wanted to take on a healthy, positive approach, so we decided to name it ‘Healthy Diné Nation Act.’ After years of efforts, it is a friendly awareness tax that has been received and adopted by our people.”

Livingston says that while some in the community may not like the tax,  the DCAA is making an effort to change those negative opinions by starting the conversation about healthy food. 

“There’s a choice — and the choice is left in the hands of the consumer,” Livingston says.

Within the Navajo Nation, many new farms are evolving, and some of these farms are harvesting traditional, healthy produce. 

“There is a young lady, Aretta Begay, who is leading a Navajo Churro Lamb Presidium. She has sheep and teaches traditional techniques, lessons, and usage of wool,” Livingston says. “And there’s North Leupp Family Farms — it holds a harvest festival and works to get the community involved with farming.”

In an effort to increase healthy foods in stores near reservations, there are many programs in the works, Livingston says.  

“Harvard is implementing the ‘fruits and vegetable prescription’ that allows Navajo members who are predisposed  to diabetes or who are diabetic to get a voucher for them to get healthy foods at their local stores,” she says. “Local gardeners and farmers are also being encouraged to collaborate with local stores to increase the access and availability [to food].”

Also, those who run farmers’ markets and local roadside markets, which are typically headed by locals, are being encouraged to link with the Navajo Nation and bring healthier, whole and organic foods into the Nation. Livingston says the DCAA also is encouraging local families to start gardens, no matter the size, to get fresh produce in their homes.

While the plan is well on its way, it’s still not fully implemented. 

“We are still working on the Community Wellness Projects implementation. There is much work that needs to be completed. All 110 of our Navajo chapters are aware of the process and how it works, so, we are in the stage of finalizing the process with the guidance of the Navajo Nation Executive Branch and the Navajo Division of Community Development,” Livingston says. “Also we are working on the implementation of all three laws, which is critical to continue to eliminate unhealthy foods. The laws are just the start and we have much more work to see the success of policy change. We have an opportunity to not only impact our Navajo communities, but the United States, and the world. We are all facing an unhealthy foods culture and the impact of it.”

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