“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.
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