FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Oh how sweet it isn’t.
Thousands of people will line a highway on the Navajo Nation this Saturday for the largest Native American fair parade in the country. But children gripping grocery bags, pillow cases or empty flour sacks eager to scoop up candy might not get any.
Rather than channel Willy Wonka, tribal President Jonathan Nez banned participants from handing out candy and other junk food — encouraging them instead to give out fruit, vegetables and bottled water. He cited the high prevalence of diabetes among Navajos and said the drastic measure would help people think differently about the food they eat.
“It doesn’t make sense where our government offices spend thousands and thousands of dollars for candy to be handed out in parades and on the other hand say, here we are fighting against diabetes,” Nez told The Associated Press.
His efforts partly were soured after the tribe’s legislative branch said Thursday that Nez’s ban doesn’t apply to everyone, only to employees who answer to him.
“If he wants to this, he should do this just on his float, not to others,” said lawmaker Herman Daniels, who asked for a legal opinion on the candy ban.
The parade in the tribal capital of Window Rock is one of the highlights of the annual Navajo Nation Fair, which started Tuesday and ends Sunday. It features a rodeo, concerts, frybread making contests, livestock judging, art and carnival rides. The winner of the Miss Navajo Nation competition, which requires contestants to butcher a sheep, is crowned Saturday evening hours after the parade ends.
The crowd arrives early for the parade, bringing shade tents and camping chairs, or dropping their tailgate to watch from the bed of their trucks.
Veterans groups, school bands, tribal royalty, politicians, government offices and other parade participants signed a waiver that says candy cannot be thrown from floats but can be handed out at least 5 feet (1.5 meters) from the float. It recommends giving out school supplies and fruit.
An August memo from Nez’s office telling participants they can’t give out candy, or unhealthy food and beverages, was included in the parade registration packet, said spokesman Jared Touchin.
If nothing else, the candy ban has people talking.
Some had no appetite for being told what their children should have. Memes showed people bruised from getting hit with flying fruit or packing up to leave a candy-less parade. Some said that Nez’s effort was pointless, given the type of food available at the fair, and that occasional treats are OK.
“You’re going to be getting just a few pieces of candy,” said Window Rock resident Nate Boyd. “You’re not the only one watching the parade, you’re going to be in competition. You might not even get one.”
Others praised Nez for promoting health. Tens of thousands of Navajos are diabetic or pre-diabetic, and about half the population is considered obese or overweight, said tribal health executive director Jill Jim.
Nez took office in January and raised money for the campaign by holding walking and running events. He has called on the Tribal Council to extend a 2% sales tax on food with little to no nutritional value — known as the junk food tax — beyond 2020.
He also didn’t sugarcoat the issue when he was vice president. Nez encouraged children to trade treats from parades and Halloween for sports equipment and school supplies.
In 2017, the tribe’s diabetes program collected 500 pounds (227 kilograms) of candy and donated it for military care packages. Program manager Lucinda Charleston said staff also educated parents and children on reading food labels and exercise.
To be sure, the candy police won’t be at the parade.