Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

"Fighting This War"

"Navajo used to farm the land in cornfields and look after cattle and sheep. A lot of lifestyle changes have happened and a lot of unhealthy food has come on to the reservation."
"There are very few jobs and most of them are sedentary. People don't do the physical exercise they used to. In the past, we had very little meat in our diet, it was just herbs and plants and so on.
"But if you go into a Navajo grocery store now it's aisles and aisles of potato chips and soda pops and huge amounts of bad canned food."
"We need to get fresh goods back into stores, but the stores can't afford refrigerators for fresh fruits and vegetables."
Gloria Begay, Dine Community Advocacy Alliance
Navajo Natives in Monument Valley, Utah
Navajo Natives in Monument Valley, Utah     Photo: Alamy

What to do, what action to take when a large community of people haven't easily available access to healthy foods, though they represent a people that in bygone times knew how to grow their own? How about making it less attractive to them to acquire the foods that do nothing to meet their nutritional needs, but are readily available, and relatively inexpensive, and taste good? With all those positive elements; available, cheap, savoury, why would they stop eating what nutritionists tell them isn't satisfying their basic nutritional needs, yet making them obese?

In communities where every cent counts, place a burden of acquisition on those products, perhaps that'll work? It means that people who haven't much in the way of disposable income to begin with face an additional burden of cost to obtain the diet to which they've succumbed, which is basically junk food and highly processed food no longer retaining its original nutrients. It's a mystery, in a sense, that a people once accustomed to foraging on the land has chosen not to. But it's also human nature to succumb to what's popular and easy to obtain.

        A fast food restaurant near the Arizona Navajo Reservation (Alamy)

The result has been poor health. The Navajo Nation, representing the largest indigenous group in the United States, whose territory spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, with a tribal population of 300,000 realized it had a modern-day problem on its hands, a universal one, but one that morbidly affects their population turning once-healthy people into poor health-afflicted and overweight ghosts of what they once were.

Their health crisis has been caused by their transition from pinon nuts, wild potato, sumac berries, yucca fruit, prickly pears and bee-weed greens to one that features french fries, tortillas, cookies, potato chips, sugar-laden drinks, and Spam. An estimated 25,000 people in the region have acquired type 2 diabetes, with 75,000 in a pre-diabetic state, according to the Navajo Area Indian Health Service.

For some age groups, the obesity rate stands at up to 60 percent. High blood pressure and heart disease are on a rampage. Faced with that dilemma, the reservation has become the first place in the United States to place a tax on junk food. The Healthy Dine Nation Act addresses food and drink rated with "minimal-to-no-nutritional value" with the imposition of a two percent tax. Ice Cream and candies, fruit juice, sugar-free Jell-O, diet sodas and energy drinks are all caught up in the new taxation regimen.

   Mary Todecheeine is cooking 'frybread' in her house on the Black Mesa plateau in the heart of the Navajo Indian Nation (Patrick Frilet/REX)

Up to 90 percent of the food sold in Navajo grocery stores qualified for the tax, according to a survey. To balance the new tax on junk food, an existing tax of five percent on fruit and vegetables was tossed out. An estimated $1-million annually is set to be realized by the new tax. That one million is earmarked for projects such as farmers' markets, community vegetable gardens, greenhouses, and exercise equipment.

In the 1830s, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the right in law to make and enforce laws and raise taxes, for the Navajo as a self-governing, semi-autonomous "domestic dependent nation" within America. The Navajo Nation has its own courts, elects its own president and tribal council, sitting in its capital of Window Rock, Arizona.

Demographics play their part in the vast reserve that covers 43,000 square kilometers where only ten large supermarkets serve this large number of people. Many of the people living in trailers and modest houses don't have electricity or refrigerators. Unemployment stands at roughly 50 percent, and is as high as 90 percent in some of the 110 tribal districts. Leaving 42 percent of the population living under the poverty line.

Some of these people must make round trips of 160 kilometres to the closest food store. That food shop may just be an add-on to a gas station, selling rudimentary food items whose resemblance to whole foods is illusory. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's nomenclature for such situations where people must travel long distances to the nearest supermarkets, is "food desert". At those supermarkets a dozen apples may sell for $7, while for that sum seven frozen ready-to-eat meals could be bought.

In the mid-19th Century, as a result of relocation and dislocations in the American frontier history of settlement and abuse of aboriginal peoples, the Navajo began the habit of eating "fry-bread", which is basically bread fried in lard, popularly eaten to this day. Diabetes has become a problem in one-third of pregnancies. By 2020, it is estimated that parts of the reservations will see a 90% diabetes rate.

The Navajo Nation president rejected the very thought of the "junk food tax", when it was initially broached, with the consideration that small businesses would suffer, and the cost to the consumers might be unbearable, but he was convinced eventually that it was the wise thing to do, because "Diabetes is an enemy that we will conquer by fighting this war together".

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