Health group hasn't given up crusade against junk food

By Antonio Ramirez
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, July 25, 2013

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F ollowing the Navajo Nation Council's decision to vote down the Junk Food Tax Act of 2013, the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance activists have rallied and come up with a new strategy that includes partnering with private businesses and introducing the bill as a referendum at the next election.

At the 2013 Navajo Food and Wellness Policy Summit, DCAA members first met representatives from Bashas' Family of Stores and together the two organizations have hashed out a plan to create a healthier "store environment."

Thus far, the company has considered creating displays and remodeling the layout of the Bashas' store in Window Rock to boost the appeal of healthier food and increasing the supply of fresh fruits and vegetables.

The plan is to persuade customers to buy and prepare more nourishing meals by promoting and improving the supply of healthy eating options.

"We want our stores to reflect what shoppers want," said Bashas' representative Kristy Jozwiak. "We're keeping our eyes open, our ears open, and we're listening to feedback from the community."

Future meetings with DCAA, Bashas, IHS employees and Council delegates are likely to be underway soon.

In a prepared statement to the Times, DCAA activist Gloria Begay said, "DCAA will continue to move forward with Navajo Food Tax Legislation as referendum vote to Navajo voters to decide on the current and future of health and wellness issues of the Navajo Nation."

If the bill passes, it will increase the tax on "junk food" by 2 percent and eliminate the 5 percent sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition, DCAA plans to eliminate the sales tax on water. Money generated from the tax increase on junk food would be distributed to chapters in order to fund wellness programs.

During the summer session, several delegates criticized the bill because it may further induce Navajos to purchase groceries in border towns off the reservation, such as Gallup or Farmington, where there is no sales tax on food.

However, it was also argued that the tax elimination on fresh fruits and vegetables might help these specific items to be more competitive.

Delegates also expressed concern that the tax increase would place an undue burden on the more needy families. However, those who use Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, (or EBT), or food stamps, will not be affected because sales tax is not applied to eligible items.

EBT cards have been criticized because there are many eligible items for purchase through the program that are widely considered unhealthy. For instance, anyone with an EBT card can purchase a shopping cart full of chips and soda. DCAA members plan to address this federal issue in the future.

Some Council delegates also liked the educational aspect of the tax, because it would allow consumers to clearly identify what is considered "junk food" by the legislation and what is not.

Deliberation over the bill last week in the summer session left the Council divided over the tax increase on junk food.

Yet, there was general support for the tax elimination on fresh fruits and vegetables.

Delegate Dwight Witherspoon (Black Mesa/Forest Lake/Hardrock/Piñon/Whippoorwill) even made a motion to amend the bill to remove the tax increase on junk food but retain the tax elimination on fresh fruits and vegetables.

However, Speaker Johnny Naize (Low Mountain/Many Farms/Nazlini/Tachee/Blue Gap/Tsélani/Cottonwood) ruled the motion by Witherspoon out of order and the bill subsequently went up for vote and failed 8-10.