A little known health advocacy group is campaigning to pass a 2-percent sales tax on all junk food sold on the reservation. And they have received some support from the Nation's chapters.
The group, the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, is hoping the tax will discourage Navajo people from buying foods linked to health problems. The Navajo people for years have struggled to contain high rates of obesity and diabetes, both linked to poor diet.
"My maternal uncle went blind. He had diabetes — he died from it. My aunt had it — she died from it. My mom had it," said Shirley Montoya, a community organizer for the group.
The group in recent months has been visiting chapter houses in an effort to gain their support. As expected, it has not been easy.
"Some of the community members are already saying, We're taxed enough,' and Our elders won't be able to afford it,' but our elders shouldn't be eating candy," Montoya said.
The group has not specified exactly what foods the tax would include, though they have thrown around the ideas of chips, candy, ice cream, pizza, and soda.
"We even talked about fry bread and tortillas," Montoya said.
The group is proposing that the revenue from the tax would be used to fund projects that promote healthy living, such as the construction of recreational centers and parks.
"We have no place to go," Montoya said.
How much the tax revenue would be generated has not yet been estimated, though the group has spoken with the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development. The division helped the group come up with the percentage by considering what would be feasible for both consumers and retailers.
Selling the merits of an additional tax on junk food will be a challenge. Shiprock already has a more than 6-percent retail sales tax.
"Coming from the business standpoint, I don't think it's a good idea," said Wolf Atson, City Market manager in Shiprock. "But on the health point, it's probably a good idea."
Business already is hurting because of the economy, Atson said, and often junk food items are among the top sellers at the store.
"Anything that's in the check stand. Anything that's grab and go ... chocolate with caramel, chili fries, chili Cheetos, energy drinks — those all are popular," Atson said.
Many, however, understand the positive impact of reducing the amount of fast food consumed on the Navajo Nation.
The Nation is just one of the Native American tribes struggling with obesity and diabetes, according to reports from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Various groups on the Navajo Nation have taken up causes to fight the ongoing increase in obesity and diabetes rates among their people.
Several chapters, many of which already are involved in fundraisers against obesity and diabetes,
As the effort progresses, the group hopes to refine the definition of junk food and make the proposal more specific.
"We're hoping that it makes parents and grandparents think about what they are feeding their kids," Montoya, also a grandmother, said. "We want to make them happy (with junk food), but we're just hurting them."
Jenny Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 505-564-4636. Follow her on Twitter @Jenny_Kane