The Navajo Nation’s Junk Food Tax and the Road to Food Sovereignty
Gloria Ann Begay, MA, has dedicated much of her life to advocating for food security and Native American sovereignty. A member of the Navajo Nation, she is the Executive Director of the Diné Alliance for Food Sovereignty (DFSA) and works with local Navajo community leaders to develop long-term strategies to ensure food security for the Navajo people. “We are looking at how we can restore our food system,” says Gloria. “Ninety percent or more of our food is imported and that’s not the Navajo food system.”
Obesity and diabetes rates in the Navajo Nation are much higher than in the rest of the United States1. Part of Gloria’s long-term strategy is to help restore the balance between the healthy food options available and locally produced and grown foods. Almost 40% of Navajo Nation members feel their communities are short of food, and even with food assistance programs, the lack of nutritious food options and the distance required to get to a grocery store to purchase them, contributes directly to health issues in the community.2.
“Projects are needed to benefit the community and our health,” says Gloria. His work at DSFA includes developing educational resources on traditional Navajo food culture, including food workshops for children and young parents, and working with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and leaders of the Navajo Nations. locals to create new options for quality and affordable food.
The junk food tax
In November 2014, the Council of the Navajo Nation passed the law Healthy Diné Nation Act 2014 (HDNA), which enacted the very first junk food tax in a sovereign tribal nation and in the United States. The Navajo people are called Diné, which means “the people”. A 2% tax was levied on foods and beverages with minimal or no nutritional value and offset by the abolition of a 6% tax on water, fruits and vegetables. The purpose of the tax was to promote healthier diets and lifestyles in the Navajo Nation and to provide new income for Local Community Wellbeing Projects (CWP).
Gloria knew that a tax impact analysis was needed. “Our board delegates want up-to-date data,” she says. She partnered with Del Yazzie, MPH, an epidemiologist from Navajo Epidemiology Center, to study the impact of the tax on the community and promote well-being3. “We discussed how to assess the junk food tax and how communities are using the funds,” says Del.
Del is the first author of a new study, supported in part by NIMHD, in Prevent chronic diseases. The study reports on the economic impact of the junk food tax4. Together, Del and his colleagues have calculated that the junk food tax has generated over $ 7.58 million in gross revenue for the Navajo Nation since 2015. Importantly, almost all of that money has been redistributed to the Nation’s 110 locals. Navajo to develop their own CWPs.
Del and Gloria partnered with the Navajo Tax Commission office, Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, Diné College, Dr Sonya Shin, MD, Research Director of the Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment Program (COPE)and Dr. Hendrik “Dirk” de Heer, PhD, MPH, associate professor of health sciences at Northern Arizona University.
“Gloria’s work with the Navajo Department of Health is rooted in historic oppression,” Dirk says. “Displacement, food insecurity issues… the Navajo were traditionally healthy and food sovereign. Gloria strives to control her own food and eliminate policies that undermine the health of the Navajo. “
Promote health awareness as a path to Navajo food sovereignty
Redistributing tax revenue from junk food directly to the community helps achieve the goal of better food options and better health behaviors. “Some communities are using tax revenue to reduce health disparities, like building new hiking trails and educating about healthy eating,” Del says.
CWPs include the development of new greenhouses and other agricultural projects, construction of playgrounds and recreational grounds for basketball and volleyball, and educational workshops on traditional Navajo foods.5. “Community members plan, develop and implement community wellness projects,” says Gloria, “[we’re] are also looking for many ways to help the environment. “
Another important aspect of this collaboration is the communication of their findings, especially with regard to informing local leaders about the impact of the tax and advocating for the extension of the policy. “Growing up here in Navajo, a lot of people aren’t aware of the junk food tax and we try to educate our people,” Del says.
The educational and awareness component of their work has already influenced Navajo law and policy. The junk food tax was scheduled to expire on the last day of 2020, but the tax was successfully and indefinitely re-authorized on December 31, 2020. The research team worked with Navajo National leaders, including delegate Amber Crotty, who has sponsored legislation, to help re-authorize the tax. “This assessment team developed health reports, journals and papers that contributed to the Navajo Council’s resolution to drop the sunset clause,” says Gloria.
“Initially, the tax was greeted with a lot of hindsight,” says Dirk. “It is our duty to inform the Tribal Council, because it is the information necessary for a good policy.” The tax extension was unanimously approved just before it expired, in part because of its success. “To move forward,” says Del, “we need more time to further assess the health impact and to better understand.”
Follow-up projects will assess health behaviors using the Navajo Nation Health Survey1 (Adapted from the Navajo Nation’s National Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System) and understanding food store environments with respect to the availability and choice of nutritious foods. The DFSA and the Navajo Epidemiology Center have further partnered with the COPE program to identify additional ways to encourage healthier food options.
COPE Prescription Fruit and Vegetable Program provides food stamps to Navajo families to purchase fruits and vegetables. “The Prescription Fruit and Vegetable Program has encouraged stores to carry healthier foods,” says Gloria.
The impact was felt beyond the borders of the Navajo Nation. When the junk food tax was enacted, towns bordering the Navajo Nation reacted to the removal of the 5% tax on water and commodities. “The fruit and vegetable economy evolved in response to the junk food tax,” says Gloria.
So far, these pieces and research are part of the complicated puzzle of solving the food sovereignty of the Navajo Nation. “It’s been quite a journey and I think we’ve accomplished a lot,” says Del. Dirk agrees. He adds: “It’s about getting a health policy adopted based on the needs and perspectives of their own people.”
There is still a lot of work to be done to achieve this long-term goal, but so far these partnerships and collaborations have had a tremendous impact on improving the Navajo Nation.