Across many parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, hundreds of consumers have just encountered an unsettling surprise while grocery shopping: a 2% “junk food tax” was recently passed by the Navajo Nation, with the intent of reducing obesity and promoting healthier eating.
Obesity isn’t just a continuous problem in the Navajo Nation; it’s an epidemic, rooted deeply in what the U.S. Department of Agriculture has called a “food desert,” with both environmental and socioeconomic factors coming into play.
Residents in the 27,000-square-mile stretch of land rely heavily on reservation stores for weekly grocery shopping. These stores, which are very similar to gas stations and convenience stores, provide customers with rows of junk food options without much in the way of fresh fruit and vegetables. According to the International Business Times, the food in many reservation stores is about 80% junk food, and those living in remote regions of the “food desert” often have to travel well over an hour to find the closest grocery store or farmer’s market with fresh food.
Additionally, money is also a concern for the majority of those living in the Navajo Nation. According to the Los Angeles Times, about 40% of adults in the Navajo Nation are unemployed, and 42% of households have incomes below the federal poverty line. Choosing to eat junk food isn’t really the issue for many Navajo homes; having the money to buy fresh food is the real problem.
And this is exactly why lawmakers have instituted a “junk food tax,” which is reportedly expected to generate about $1 million annually by incorporating a 2% tax on processed foods. The law has only been in place for about two weeks, and according to the Arizona Public Media, the tribe has attempted to curb higher grocery bills — and also to encourage residents to eat healthier — by removing the 5% tax on fresh fruits and vegetables.
Nevertheless, residents are already very displeased with the change. Financial limitations have caused many households to forego fresh foods in lieu of processed foods, so it’s hardly surprising that residents are disproportionately obese, and diabetes develops at a rate 20% higher than double the rate of the general U.S. population.
The tax may continue to be quite unpopular among residents for quite a while, but when the lives of so many Americans are at stake, it’s easy to see why lawmakers are willing to risk that unpopularity.