retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The Los Angeles Times reports that the Navajo Nation has simultaneously lifted a five percent sales tax on fresh fruits and vegetables and imposed a two percent tax on products defined as junk food. Think of this is the carrot-and-stick approach to curbing "rampant obesity, diabetes and heart disease" within the Native American community.

Meanwhile, the Times also reports that seven years after the city banned new fast food restaurants from opening in the poor South Los Angeles neighborhood in an attempt to reduce high obesity rates there, a Rand Corp. report "says that from 2007 to 2012, the percentage of people who were overweight or obese increased everywhere in L.A., but the increase was significantly greater in areas covered by the fast-food ordinance, including Baldwin Hills and Leimert Park. The study also found fast-food consumption went up in South L.A. as well as across the county during that time."

(To be fair, the story notes that data from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health suggests that "from 2009 to 2013, the percentage of people in South L.A. who were obese dropped slightly, from 35.4% to 32.7%." So not everyone agrees that there's been no impact, though it certainly has been negligible ... though probably not so negligible if you are in the group of people who addressed their weight/health problems.)
KC's View:
The story about the nation's largest Native American tribe notes that the taxation shift carries with it economic implications: "About 42% of the Navajo Nation lives below the federal poverty line. For many in the tribe, a limited budget and few stores to choose from — the U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared parts of the vast reservation a food desert — mean gas stations and convenience stores are their primary grocers." And so lack of availability and lack of economic means both play into the tendency of poor folks to eat poorly.

The report about South Los Angeles, I think, ought to serve as a kind of cautionary note on several levels.

First of all, there never is a guarantee that targeted public policy moves alone are going to solve the problem, and I think it is naive to put all your eggs in that particular basket. That's not to say that there should not be a public policy response to high obesity rates. I think there should be, especially because a lot of experts say that the obesity epidemic creates all sorts of long-term health care, economic and national security problems. But public policy alone ain't gonna do it.

It also is important to remember that there is no such thing as a fast fix. These are problems that have been in the making for a long, long time. The Rand report on South Los Angeles does not cover the two most recent years of the fast food ban there, and so we don't necessarily know if there's been any recent improvement. And while I'm not a fast food fan by any means, it is important to remember that not all fast food is created equal ... I keep reading about vegetarian fast food restaurants that are popping up in different places, and so it is important not to paint with too broad a brush. (Which, of course, is what politicians and public policymakers do.)

In the case of the Navajo Nation, the LA Times story is highly instructive, explaining that "to understand how the Navajo Nation got here, it's important to understand its relationship with food.

"Navajo society was for a time largely agrarian, a fact reflected in part of the Navajo creation story: A starving people from another world were met by a turkey, who shook out four corn kernels from beneath its wings, saving them. Navajo society relied on sheep and cattle, as well as corn. Then, in the 1920s and '30s, the U.S. government began setting limits on livestock, explained at the time as a way to preserve eroding and overgrazed soil."

And, there are are real challenges on the reservation, where "just 7% of residents have a college degree, significantly affecting their job prospects.

"Proponents hope the junk food tax will mark a turning point for the nation's largest tribe. Revenue will go into a community health fund to pay for infrastructure improvements on the reservation and educational programming."

I'm not sure what the best way is to address all these complicated issues, but I'm pretty sure that a junk food tax - that has to be renewed in 2020, by the way, so it isn't like there is a long-term commitment - isn't going to be a panacea.

The obesity issue - on and off the reservation - deserves attention for all sorts of reasons. Short-term fixes are not going to be the answer.