Denisa Livingston knows what progress looks like and she’s seeing it at home on the Navajo Nation.
Livingston has been an active supporter of the legislation that would have made Navajo Nation the first government to tax junk food at a higher rate and tax healthy items, such as nuts, seeds and produce, at a lower rate than other foods.
She and other volunteers with the grassroots Diné Community Advocacy Alliance began their journey in August 2012, first pushing for the junk food tax in summer 2013 and again in January 2014. The second time, the Navajo Nation Council adopted the bills in a 12 to 7 vote.
While President Ben Shelly ultimately decided to veto the bills on Feb. 12, the effort is not over. Shelly sent the bills back to the council with recommendations and expects them to be presented again. And the DCAA is moving forward with celebration plans for the second week of March.
For now, says Livingston, the cause for celebration is increased conversation among council members, government officials and others regarding the importance of wellness, and an increased willingness to confront the often uncomfortable reality of the complications of diabetes with friends, family and healthcare providers.
“We’re going to celebrate because no one has ever come this far,” Livingston said. And they’ll continue to work with council members to develop legislation Shelly would sign.
Rick Abasta, communications director for Navajo Nation, said Shelly is not against the goal of the legislation, but thinks it will be improved with clarifications about what would be taxed as junk food and tweaks to support the role of the Navajo Tax Commission.
“[Shelly] believes it is good legislation and there are just some changes that need to be made,” Abasta said. “He’d consider it again.”
As presented this winter, junk food would have been taxed at a rate two percent higher than others foods while the five percent food tax on healthier items would have been eliminated. Whether fast food chains, other restaurants or local mutton stands would have been subject to the junk food tax was not clear and, Abasta said, there was no money included to cover necessary changes in tax collection efforts.
Livingston said she and other supporters are glad these issues are being brought to light so they can be addressed. And the attention paid to the council’s vote has brought support from across Indian Country, too.
She’s had calls from tribes in Minnesota and Washington State, “even people saying ‘This is what we need for New Mexico or the country.’ There are people calling left and right. … People are putting health on their agendas.”
Abasta said, it’s important that whatever legislation is developed supports the Navajo value of self-determination, Ani ada’anit ‘i h, or “do it for yourself.”
“It goes back to the age old wisdom. You have to do it for yourself; no one is going to do it for you. We need the proper education of the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle,” Abasta said. “We don’t want it to cost money once it’s enacted.”
President Shelly and Vice President Rex Lee Jim consider wellness and fitness a pillar of their administration, Abasta said. Jim, a runner, participates in several events including a run sponsored by the Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project last year that covered 400 miles of the nation. Abasta said T-shirts commemorating participation in NNSDP races are a common site on the reservation.
Betti Delrow, program manager of the Navajo Nation Special Diabetes Project, was not involved in the food tax legislation. But she’s focused everyday on the shared goal of education to prevent diabetes. The project, funded by an Indian Health Service grant, provides outreach including in-home and at school visits throughout the reservation.
The focus is on those who don’t have diabetes, ranging in age from preschool to about 55 years old. The project is working now on a data collection system that will allow for better tracking of program results.
“Our focus is on prevention and education. We’re not clinical,” Delrow said. “Those who already have diabetes are going to be difficult to change.”
There are three wellness centers at Navajo Nation now, Delrow said, with more proposed. Taxes collected from the sale of “junk food” would support the creation of more centers and other wellness efforts such as healthy cooking classes and gardening support.
Change is difficult, Livingston agrees, but not impossible. Her mother reversed her diabetes with diet and exercise and Livingston says she wants others to have the same opportunities.
“We do have solutions to overcome disease and sickness. Getting there is going to be challenging and slow, but this is to improve the health of our people.” Livingston said. “If this can just save one life, we’ve done our job. One individual, one family, it will be well worth it.”