For Arlando Teller, grocery shopping is usually a daylong affair. The nearest large grocery store is in Gallup, New Mexico, about an hour and a half from his home on Navajo Nation Reservation in Chinle, Arizona. Often, he and his mother will drive even further -- three hours to Flagstaff, Arizona, or three and a half hours to Cortez, Colorado -- to find fresh vegetables and fruit. 

Teller’s family is not alone. Chronic diseases and illnesses exist in disproportionately high rates in Navajo Nation, and in a new effort to encourage residents to develop healthier eating habits, the Navajo Nation began taxing junk food at the beginning of April, tacking on 2 percent to the price of chips, soda, fried food or anything considered to have little or no nutritional value. But the tax has one major design flaw: Healthy alternatives are hard to find on or near the reservation. 

“People have to travel a long way to get fresh food,” said Barbara Johnson, executive director of the Rio Puerco Alliance, a nonprofit that helps locals run a mobile farmers market in Eastern Navajo Nation. “I don’t see that it’ll necessarily solve the problem,” she said of the tax’s effectiveness in encouraging people to buy fresh produce and eat healthier.

Teller, a 41-year-old Navajo who was raised on the reservation, can remember what his family used to eat, in the '70s and 80s: "Sautéed vegetables, grilled vegetables or boiled vegetables, and of course meat, lots and lots of meat.” His grandmother would cook with certain government commodity foods, like powdered eggs and milk, but not often. Teller eventually left the reservation to go to college and went on to live and work in Phoenix and San Francisco. But five years ago, he moved back to Chinle, returning to a vastly different food landscape.

“I was surrounded by processed, preserved foods,” Teller said.

Candy, soda, energy drinks and an array of other processed foods pack the shelves of local stores, he described, while fruits and vegetables, sometimes browning, occupy just half an aisle. Teller, who is concerned about his health because diabetes runs in his family, tries to trek to one of the larger grocery stories off the reservation once a week. 

A Food Desert

Deemed a “food desert” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Navajo reservation has just 10 full-service grocery stores in its 27,000 square miles, which span parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. One study has estimated that as much of 80 percent of the food found in reservation stores -- often retailers like convenience store at a gas station—counts as junk food. The lack of fresh food has largely been blamed for poor health in the community, where the diabetes rate of 20 percent is more than twice that of the general U.S. population. Obesity is also disproportionately high.

Johnson, of the Rio Puerco Alliance, pointed out that in the area where her organization works, 25 percent of people don’t have electricity. Without electricity, they can’t power refrigerators, and without those, even if they can shop at a full grocery store just once a month, it’s difficult to safely store the fresh fruits and vegetables they buy.

Money is another issue. In a report on the Navajo Nation food system published in 2014 by Dine College (Dine is another term for Navajo) in Arizona, more than half of families the study surveyed lived below the federal poverty line, and 63 percent said they were on at least one government food aid program. Sixty percent said there were foods that they wanted to eat but could not find or had trouble getting in their communities, and 74 percent blamed health problems in their communities on “a lack of healthy and nutritious food.”

“Access to fresh and healthy food options on the Navajo Nation is very limited and often times, completely unavailable, particularly in very rural communities,” the report concluded. “Highly processed and high calorie foods are readily and abundantly available at food retail locations.”

But although talk of establishing farmers markets is growing, there aren’t enough to make up for the dearth of fresh food vendors throughout the reservation. Farmers markets are rare, Watson Castillo, a Navajo who lives in Eastern Navajo Nation and is involved in the mobile market that Rio Puerco Alliance helps run, said, and trying to start one is a challenging process. The farmers market Castillo works with, which had its grand opening in June 2014, has a limited budget, and “we don’t have enough funding to get more growers established,” he said.

The First Tax Of Its Kind

The new junk food tax is expected to generate $1 million annually until it expires in 2020. The revenue is supposed to fund health-related initiatives like vegetable gardens and farmers markets, along with exercise equipment. Because it was implemented only a week ago, it’s too soon to discern its overall impact on people’s food buying habits, those living and working on Navajo Nation said, and residents appeared split over what good it would do.

Teller, the Chinle resident, said he supported the tax. “The end result is really to encourage Navajo citizens to consider a $25 bag of candy versus a $25 bag of fruits, vegetables and grains,” he said.

But Watson Castillo, who is involved with the mobile farmers market, voiced skepticism that the tax would change the way people eat. “You can tax them as much as you want but they will still buy it [junk food],” he said, “because that’s the only thing that’s available.”

Others counseled patience. Since the tax began a week ago, “the people I know…are not deterred from buying junk food,” Jonathan Nez, a member of Navajo Nation Council who co-sponsored the legislation that put the law in place, said. “It’ll take some time, obviously, to educate our people, to have them reflect on what they eat and how they behave.”

Income from the tax will be used to encourage more people to grow food and raise livestock that they can then share or sell to others in the community. “We’re hoping that we can encourage our folks to return to subsistence living,” in part by using income from the new levy, Nez said. “The whole initiative is just to take back our communities…to return to the way things used to be, before fast food restaurants were on the corner of every community.”