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Navajo Nation Eliminates Tax on Healthy Food: Native Americans Hope to Combat Diabetes

First Posted: Apr 27, 2014 09:37 AM EDT
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As obesity and diabetes rates continue to increase in the Native American community, Navajo tribal leaders voted earlier this week to eliminate sales taxes on healthy food items, which they hope will combat the epidemic by encouraging healthier diets.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Jonathan Hale came up with the initiative that had one simple message: "You are in charge of your health." He told Al Jazeera America that the measure should be a "wake-up call to the Navajo Nation."

However, one other considerable hurdle the Native American community faces is a lack of access to fresh produce, health activists say. Dana Eldridge, an independent researcher on sustainable community and decolonization, said there are not a whole lot of fruits, vegetables or nuts grown on or near reservations. She argued that Native Americans "live in a giant food desert" where they eat foods they didn't grown on their own.

"There's a lack of access," she said. "What is available in gas stations and the few grocery stores (in the Navajo nation) is of poor quality -- often molding vegetables."

Dine Community Advocacy Alliance, a Navajo organization, confirmed Eldridge's claims as they found that 55 to 85 percent of the food at local markets and convenience stores are considered "junk food," Al Jazeera reported.

Land-leasing laws on Native American reservations make it difficult for restaurant owners to gain business spaces on those lands because they first need all local tenants to approve of them setting up shop. Many of owners instead take their business just outside of the reservation or set up roadside stalls.

At the Navajo Nation's capital of Window Rock, on the Arizona side of the reservation, fast food companies including Denny's, McDonald's and Taco Bell dominate the land's restaurant scene, according to Al Jazeera.

Eldridge said that one in three Navajo are expected to develop diabetes at some point in their lives, as the community is more susceptible to type 2 diabetes. The disease is 2.3 times more common among Navajo than the rest of the nation.

"Not too long ago, we were a people who knew how to feed ourselves," Eldridge said. "We grew our own food and had livestock. Through processes of American expansion and colonization, our food changed too. Now you see illnesses like diabetes."

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