Navajo tribal leaders voted this week to remove sales taxes on food items such as fruit, vegetables and nuts in an attempt to promote healthier diets and fight rampant obesity and diabetes — but some native health activists say the biggest obstacle they face is a lack of access to fresh produce on or near the reservation.
“This is a wake-up call to the Navajo Nation: You are in charge of your health,” Jonathan Hale, the Navajo Nation Council delegate who introduced the measure, told Al Jazeera.
Still, advocates say the tribe has a long way to go to improve Navajos’ declining health.
“We live in a giant food desert,” meaning a region that produces little of its own food, said Dana Eldridge, an independent researcher on sustainable community and decolonization. Her remark echoes findings by the United States Department of Agriculture.
Eldridge said that while the council’s decision is “a real victory,” it is also largely symbolic.
Fresh food will soon be marginally cheaper because of the tax cut — but it’s not readily available, Eldridge said.
“There’s a lack of access. What is available in gas stations and the few grocery stores [in the Navajo nation] is of poor quality — often molding vegetables,” she said.
A Navajo organization called the Dine Community Advocacy Alliance, after visiting local markets and convenience stores estimated that 55 to 85 percent of food available in the Navajo Nation is “junk food.”
Most of the few restaurants in the Navajo nation’s capital, Window Rock, on the Arizona side of the reservation that also covers parts of New Mexico and Utah, are fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Denny’s. A complicated land-leasing system, overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior, makes it difficult for entrepreneurs to obtain business spaces on the reservation — they must first receive the approval of all local tenants. Many aspiring Navajo restaurateurs are therefore relegated to roadside stalls, or have to buy or lease land in border towns off the reservation.
One in three Navajo will have diabetes at some point in their lives, Eldridge said, and type 2 diabetes is 2.3 times more common in the Navajo Nation than in the United States as a whole.
Eldridge, herself a fledgling farmer, says independent agriculture is the way to a healthier and sovereign Navajo Nation.
“Not too long ago, we were a people who knew how to feed ourselves. We grew our own food and had livestock. Through processes of American expansion and colonization, our food changed too. Now you see illnesses like diabetes,” she said.
In February, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly vetoed similar tribal legislation that would have taxed junk food and put the proceeds into programs promoting “food sovereignty” — the concept of a community being self-sufficient in its food needs.
The Dine Community Advocacy Alliance helped draw up and push for the legislation to both tax junk food and to remove taxes from fresh foods.
The junk food tax would have helped fund the food sovereignty programs by levying a 2 percent tax on unhealthy foods and putting the resulting revenues into community gardens and farmers’ markets, said Gloria Ann Begay, a leader of the community alliance.
Shelly vetoed the tax because tribal authorities estimated it would only generate $1.7 million to $2.5 million, to be spread over 110 chapters — leaving just thousands of dollars for each chapter.
The Navajo Nation president’s office had not responded to an interview request from Al Jazeera at time of publication.
Begay cited the number of U.S. fast-food giants in Window Rock as one leading cause of crippling obesity and diabetes rates.
“We have all these outsiders making money, not only at the border towns of Navajo, but also in our little towns,” she said. “We can make our own restaurants. Our own Navajo foods.”