Food for thought

That old Jackson 5 number came into my head as I left the grocery store, the tune that goes something like “ABC, easy as 1-2-3.” I hummed a few bars until a fog settled on my brain while scanning my grocery receipt, double-checking what I’d been charged for my purchases.

I’d spent $67.56 on 18 items. Under my subtotal a list of three sales taxes appeared: TAX A, TAX B, and TAX D. Where did TAX C go? I couldn’t imagine. It just taxed my imagination.

Then a conspiracy theory took over when later the same week while in Durango I purchased two items at a supermarket: a bag of Bob’s Sweet Stripe mints, and a 4-ounce bottle of fabric paint. My receipt spit out three sales taxes—not the usual A, B, D. Instead, these were listed as 1, 2, and 5, and I realized I’d been assessed more taxes than purchased items.

The missing letters and numerals bothered me. What kind of mischief lurked in the spaces between B and D, or 2 and 5? The answer couldn’t be as simple as invisible ink or a checkout printer with a mechanical hiccup. It had to be intentional, and I wanted to know why.

A call to each store’s business department proved inconclusive, but I did learn TAX 1 (the 8.4 percent) in Durango combined three separate taxes: 2.9 percent for the State of Colorado, 2.0 percent for La Plata County, and 3.5 percent for the City of Durango. Technically, TAX 1 amounted to three taxes on my two item purchase.

TAX 2 turned out to be a food tax, according to the woman who drew the short straw when my call arrived. She wasn’t sure, but a food tax was her best guess. I wanted to ask if TAX 2 meant I’d been taxed once more on my mints—the only “food” I’d bought, because I couldn’t imagine eating the fabric paint. I could tell that her cheerfulness was waning, so I moved on to inquire about TAX 5.

She put me on hold to consult a higher authority, or because she needed a break. Either way, we both maintained a professional politeness, equally perplexed by the taxman. While I waited I wrestled with the knowledge that TAX 1 essentially collects revenue three times, while TAX 2 amounts to another lick at my measly mints. What could possibly justify one more tax?

When my oracle reconnected, she sweetly revealed that TAX 5 was a sugar tax. I hadn’t tasted the paint but I could speculate about which of my two items qualified for an additional 2.9 percent. I asked if any product containing sugar as an ingredient qualified for the tax. She didn’t know. A cake mix? A box of cereal? A jar of jelly? She couldn’t say. Pancake syrup? What about a 5 pound bag of sugar? Her fingers must have tensed, because I heard a crackle reaching through the phone connection. I thanked her for trying to help, hung up, and switched to the internet.

The trouble with legislating nutritional behavior is that no consistency exists in what our country decides might qualify as food. Currently only 15 states exempt sales tax on foods and beverages purchases, no matter what products you buy, and five of these charge no sales tax on anything. The rest prescribe a scattered kind of governance over what we put in our mouths.

Coloradans live in a less temperate financial climate. Here, while the taxman claims there’s no tax on “most” foods, the state has a very specific list (3 pages long) of non-tax-exempt food items, which are collected under the heading “unique food laws.” Candy is just one of them, and since sweet is evil, this unique food requires additional taxable penalty, except if purchased with food stamps or WIC vouchers. Then the same sugar items are tax-exempt.

At my local supermarket I found a similar level of confusion about grocery taxes, though clearly not as befuddled as my own. This A, B, D, … 1, 2, 5 … I just couldn’t get that music out of my jive. The implied advice from those who tried to explain things to me was to eat the evidence.

Learning about these political maneuverings to disguise the State’s duty deeds left a bad taste in my mouth. No wonder I buy mints. Or I could be turning into one of those hoarders, preparing for the day when all the unique food will be carted away and paint will be sold not in colors but flavors, like Candy Tangerine.

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at

From David Feela.