Support Food Sovereignty: Pass the Twinkie Death Tax!

The food sovereignty movement in Indian country has been spurred largely by the hard work and dedication of reservation-based community and nonprofit organizations and tribal colleges. These groups and institutions have created programs to improve diet and health, boost their local economies, increase education and, further assert Native control of Native food systems. Increasingly these groups are looking at legislative powers of tribal governments, and urging their tribes to take legislative action to increase regulation and show broader tribal government commitment to increasing food sovereignty and improving diet and health.

On July 17, 2013, the Navajo Nation Legislative Council was called on to consider a historical piece of legislation regarding food sovereignty of the Nation – the implementation of a two percent sales tax on junk food sales occurring on the reservation. Sponsored by Councilman Danny Simpson, the act called for taxation on soda, sugar-sweetened beverages and junk food being sold across the Navajo Nation while also calling for the elimination of a tribal sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables. The “Navajo Nation Junk Food Sales Tax Act of 2013” (legislation No. 0085-13) proposed that revenue generated from the sales tax be redistributed to Navajo Nation chapters and designated for community health and wellness projects.

Though defeated after a close vote and roughly four hours of floor debate, the Navajo Nation became the first Indian nation to propose such legislation. With this historic effort, the Nation joined an exclusive and limited number of legislative efforts by other governing bodies across the United States that have started to examine the negative effects of sugary foods and beverages on health, and explore potential legislative action to combat these issues.

Earlier this year, New York City made national headlines as Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to restrict the size of sugary soft drinks sold in restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums and arenas to 16 ounces (known as the supersize ban). Similarly, in November 2012, El Monte, California, voters considered (and subsequently rejected) a proposal to charge a 1-cent tax for every ounce of sugary drink sold, with the tax revenue going to the Children’s Health Promotion Fund to combat childhood diabetes. Moreover, in June 2013, several mayors from across the country urged Congress to ban soda from the list of allowable products that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients can purchase, citing the connection between poverty and poor diet and health.

To date, all of these efforts have been unsuccessful. Nonetheless, we should applaud these efforts for their innovation to demand government response to issues associated with poverty, poor diet and health.

In a presentation to the Navajo Nation council before the legislative debate, Diné Community Advocacy Alliance (DCAA), a grassroots community organization, noted that it was a disgrace junk foods were more accessible and cheaper than fresh and healthy foods on the reservation. DCAA representatives noted that citizens can purchase a can of Spam for $2.50 – a product filled with artificial preservatives and high in sodium – but it costs roughly $6.50 to purchase a small bag of fresh apples (approximately 8 apples). In urging the council to pass the legislation, DCAA argued that access to healthy food is a human right and also pointed out that the consumption of sweetened beverages and junk food is connected to high rates of diabetes and other negative health effects among the Navajo people.

Over the past year, DCAA has held numerous community meetings and met with leadership of the Navajo Nation as well as other agencies and departments. In some of the community meetings organized by DCAA, representatives from the sweetened beverage industry attended and voiced their opposition to the proposed tax. During the legislative debate, Navajo delegates noted that this was the first time representatives from businesses like Coca-Cola and Pepsi had ever been to the reservation – and it was to protest the passage of this Act.

What can we learn from this legislative attempt? First, tribal governments may have to begin to look seriously at how they can develop policy to increase and support food sovereignty and legislatively support the community efforts taking place within their jurisdictions. Second, tribal leaders may have to take a look at and question outside business interests who show up (perhaps for the first time ever) at the doorsteps of reservation meetings when their interests (and profits) are being threatened.

This legislative effort also tells us that the road to increasing food sovereignty is not easy. Like tribal sovereignty, further exerting food sovereignty is subject to interference by outside interests. Tribal governments may have to engage in hard discussions about who they do business with and about the vendors allowed to sell products and goods that are destructive to the health and wellbeing of tribal citizens.

Finally, and perhaps most inspiring, this legislative effort tells us that there is a lot of innovation taking place in Indian Country by organizations and groups that want to improve the diet and health of tribal citizens – for the ultimate success and survival of Indian nations. No doubt we will continue to see this ingenuity and resourcefulness of The People take hold as they continue to further Native food sovereignty.

Raymond Foxworth, Navajo, is the senior program officer at First Nations Development Institute. Raymond oversees the Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (NAFSI), a program that provides financial and technical assistance to Native nations and organizations to support food system control in Indian Country.

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Support Food Sovereignty: Pass the Twinkie Death Tax!

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