The Navajo Nation Asks: Is a Junk Food Tax the Answer To Healthier Citizens?

junk_food_tax.jpgAs Wellness Warriors, we pay close attention to school nutrition programs and practices, because we understand the vital role they play in our nation’s health. For many students, school lunch is their one daily shot at eating a reasonably wholesome meal.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), a group that was once an important advocate for healthy school meals, has changed its tune lately, kowtowing to Big Food sponsors and earning a label from the sage and ever watchful Dr. Marion Nestle as “the leading defender of junk food.”

We’re outraged SNA’s seeming shift to putting dollars over innocent children’s health in the quest for Big Food profits.  

Monica Eng of NPR recently addressed this issue in a piece about junk food that is designed to meet the new USDA Smart Snack standards:

These aren't just any Flamin' Hot Cheetos. They're a reformulated version with less fat, less salt, and more whole grains. But is that really what the scientists at the Institute of Medicine had in mind when they wrote the recommendations that would become the Smart Snack rules?”

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos have a particularly haute status as the pinnacle of school junk food, and adding a few whole grains to them and reducing their sodium does not a healthy snack make.

Beyond the recommendations of SNA, we find a pervasive culture of fast and junk foods fueled by Big Food marketing ... but also promulgated in some cases by schools themselves. Eng reminds us how school district administrators, backed by local and state politicians, have resisted changes towards healthier options:  

The Obama administration rolled out the new guidelines last year in a bid to limit the amount of junk food kids eat in school, but nearly half of all U.S. states have formally rejected the standards as too strict. Some legislators think the rules make it too hard for schools to raise money through snack sales at vending machines."

And while some schools may not want to serve broccoli in favor of fries, we know of one school that goes so far as promoting McDonald’s at their career day. The fast food giant was a featured guest in this Alabama elementary school’s day to support the career aspirations of young children. The front office was turned into a “walk through” and goodies were handed out to all:

The chain supplied hamburgers for the entire faculty and staff, but all 730-some students at the school received a Happy Meal bag containing a toy and coloring page. Children did not receive any McDonald's food partly due to allergy concerns.”

That’s a new low for McDonalds in our book.

Against tactics like this, is there a way to tip the scale?

Leilani Clark of Civil Eats explores one such equalizing policy in her piece on the county’s first junk food tax. The Navajo Nation began to charge a two-percent tax on food with “minimal-to-no-nutritional value” sold within its borders starting on April 1st. This legislation was in reaction to the alarmingly high rates of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes amongst the Navajo Nation’s population. Clark notes that not only might the tax encourage people to eat healthier foods, it may also bring in income:

The sales tax will generate an estimated $1 million a year in 110 tribal chapters for wellness projects—greenhouses, food processing and storage facilities, traditional foods cooking classes, community gardens, farmers’ markets, and more."

We love this idea and we’d like to see it go nationwide. Given the extreme pushback from the beverage industry on soda taxes, we imagine that junk food tax legislation in larger cities and municipalities would be attacked unsparingly. However, this amazing step by the Navajo Nation will serve as test-case for what a junk food tax may actually do.

Image Credit: AP via First We Feast


Read all articles by Damon Cory-Watson 


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