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In Canada's picturesque North, a bedeviling problem of food deserts

Ottawa wants to open up the country's Far North.

Kenneth Baker stands in freshly turned soil, his boots sinking into the ground, a mosquito crawling across his hand.

“Look at that,” he says, turning his arm over and admiring the insect. “The first one of the season. Maybe it means good things are coming.”

It’s mid-May in Carcross, Yukon, a town of less than 500 an hour south of Whitehorse. Baker is one of four students in Yukon College’s new Food Security Program. He’s in the 9,000-sq.-ft. garden putting the first vegetables of the season into the ground: spinach, beets and radishes.

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Behind him, a din of hammers beats away as a group of locals repair two greenhouses. A lack of money, volunteers and resources has caused the once-thriving garden to grow over. In the past, food grown here was distributed among area residents. Baker and his classmates are ready to try again.

Carcross, like many communities across Canada’s North, doesn’t have a grocery store. The one gas station in town is lined with coolers of juice, pop and packaged food.

To do their grocery shopping, residents have to drive an hour to Whitehorse’s two major grocery stores, an Extra Foods and a Real Canadian Superstore.

In other far-flung communities, the drive to Whitehorse takes hours and hundreds of kilometres. But it’s often the only way to get food beyond a bag of chips.

“It’s not easy,” says Loretta Johns of Tagish, Yukon, another community without access to a grocery store, and one of Baker’s classmates. “It’s a long trip, and a lot of gas money.”

Places such as Carcross and Tagish are food deserts. The term describes a town or neighbourhood without easy access to fresh food.

Food deserts are usually found in poor U.S. inner-city neighourhoods with plenty of fast-food joints but no grocery stores. Canadian cities have such pockets, but the real food-desert problem in this country is largely hidden in Canada’s rural north.

The worst areas, not surprisingly, are in the territories, where many people have difficulty affording, let alone finding, nutritious foods. Here, people suffer from so-called “food insecurity issues” and depend largely on packaged foods high in sodium, sugar and trans fats.

Thirty-three per cent of residents in Nunavut are food insecure, as are 12% in both the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. By comparison, only 6% of Albertans are food insecure, according to a Conference Board of Canada report.

Food deserts cause food insecurity. Adults without access to quality, nutritious food have higher instances of chronic illnesses, such as obesity, anemia, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and depression, not to mention the stress that accompanies a daily struggle to feed, clothe and care for a family.

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According to Statistics Canada, 56% of children in Nunavut live in food-insecure households. Likewise, half of residents aged 11 to 15 go to bed hungry.

Little is being done to seriously address the problem. That is surprising given the keen interest that the federal government is now paying to the North.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper now makes an annual summer trip to visit the Arctic, and last fall’s throne speech stressed Ottawa’s commitment to the region and to “promoting prosperity for northerners.”

Given how little attention Canada has paid to the territories in the past, those words are commendable. But it seems silly to talk about Canada’s “true north, strong and free” when people here have trouble finding a decent meal.

“The Canadian government has a legal obligation to deal with food security,” says Diana Bronson, executive director of Food Secure Canada, an umbrella organization of groups fighting hunger, based in Montreal.

“Food insecurity is very high in aboriginal communities across the country, but it is particularly, shockingly high in the North,” Bronson says. “There’s way too many hungry kids and way too many hungry people.”

Old Crow, the northernmost community in the Yukon and the only one that requires fly-in access, has one grocery store, the Northern Store.

Since the late 1960s, the business operated using the Food Mail program, which gave transportation subsidies to communities without regular road or marine access. That changed in April 2011 when Ottawa launched the Nutrition North Canada (NNC) subsidy program.

Unlike Food Mail, NNC uses a market-driven model, and the subsidy is paid directly to the eligible retailers. The retailers are then contractually obligated to pass the savings on to customers. Ottawa has capped the program at $60 million and is currently operating at a budget of $53.9 million.

Three years after it was put in place, Nutrition North is hotly debated. Some say it has worked just as intended. Others argue food prices are still too high.

In a report to the federal government, the Nutrition North Advisory Board reported that, in communities eligible for a full subsidy, the per-week cost of feeding a family of four a healthy diet had fallen by $34.16, or 8%.

One retailer involved in the program, which operates in 67 northern communities, told the advisory board that its prices on a healthy basket of goods was down 22%, and that consumption had risen 11% for dairy products, 9% for meat and 25% for produce.

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But others, including Bronson, say the program isn’t working. The main issue, she says, is the $60-million budget. “To be effective, the budget needs to be doubled,” she says.

A second problem is NNC doesn’t subsidize grocery staples such as toilet paper, diapers and laundry soap, items that were subsidized under Food Mail but are now deemed non-essential. In fact, 2,700 products were eliminated from subsidies under NNC in an effort to streamline the process and to keep the savings focused solely on nutritious, perishable food.

The result: while lettuce may cost less than it used to, many everyday grocery stapes are still shockingly expensive.

“From Labrador to the Yukon, people are paying outrageous prices for food: $13.39 for a box of spaghetti, $59.59 for a package of ground beef,” Dennis Bevington, the New Democratic MP for Western Arctic, told Parliament last June.

Members of the legislative assemblies from Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador have all spoken out against NNC. The program has also drawn protest from residents across northern Canada.

A Facebook group, Feeding My Family, started by Iqaluit resident Leesee Papatsie, has gained more than 19,000 members voicing their concern with NNC, sharing and commenting on images of exorbitant food prices in remote communities.

One member, in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, posted a picture showing that less than one kilo of coffee costs more than $40. Another wrote of seeing three children, unable to afford food, eating from a local landfill in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

Retailers have also faced scrutiny. Last April, the North West Company, which operates more than 120 stores across the North, reported record profits and pointed to NNC as contributing to higher sales.

Shortly after, North West’s manager of communications, Connie Tamoto told Northern News Services the retailer is mandated to pass NNC subsidies back to customers. “We’re a private company, so we do make a profit off of the products that we sell,” she said. How much? “About five cents to the dollar.”

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The math on Nutrition North, however, doesn’t add up, according to former Nunavut MLA Ron Elliott.

Using price quotes from northern airlines, he figured the cost to fly food to Resolute Bay at about $3.50 per kilogram. Nutrition North’s subsidy is $10.20.

“Anything that you can buy under $7 for one kilogram, you’re getting it to the community for free,” Elliott told The Canadian Press.

Last summer, upon the request of MPs such as Bevington and three territorial legislatures, the Auditor General agreed to review the Nutrition North program.

In the United States, poverty activists and politicians are trying to combat food deserts by convincing supermarket chains to open stores in the poverty-stricken neighbourhoods of big cities such as Detroit, Atlanta, San Francisco and New Orleans.

They’ve had some surprising success. In September, for instance, Whole Foods announced it would open a store in the Englewood neighbourhood of Chicago, where 42% of households live in poverty and the unemployment rate is 21%.

So, why don’t more supermarkets open up in Canada’s north? Unfortunately, it’s not so easy. Sparse populations and high operating and distribution costs make running even a small supermarket unfeasible.

A good example is Haines Junction, a sleepy town of about 500 people in southern Yukon. Surrounded by steep, sloping, snow-peaked mountains and the towering trees of a boreal forest, the village is on the edge of Kluane National Park. Each summer it draws thousands of tourists, who, like local residents, must drive 50 kilometres into Whitehorse for groceries.

The community has exhausted several approaches in an attempt to remedy the lack of fresh food. For more than 20 years, Madley’s General Store served the area, but it closed in 2008.

A feasibility study concluded that the market was simply too small to support a profitable operation. Arctic Co-operatives Limited, which operates 31 co-ops across the North, was approached by the village, but ACL backed out once word leaked that another private retailer intended to open. That retailer never materialized.

Michael Riseborough, the chief administrative officer of Haines Junction, admits attracting a grocery store hasn’t been easy. “The money has got to be there, and we just weren’t successful in raising it.”

In the meantime, one local business has tried to step in. Rose Mazur and her family own Kluane RV Kampground in town. When no grocery store opened up, they began adding some fresh produce and groceries to their shelves. “Visitors are always looking for food,” says Mazur. “We’re hoping we can be a solution.”

There’s no simple way to solving the food desert issue in the North. Any solution must be multi-pronged. “It’s the most serious food-security situation we have in the country, and I think it’s difficult to overstate the problem,” says Bronson.

The federal government’s pledge to make the North more prosperous is a first step. After all, poor people have trouble eating well no matter where they live.

In 2009, the median annual income in Nunavut hovered around $28,000, while the average cost to feed a family of four was just less than $23,000.

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Lowering the cost of food must be a priority for Ottawa. And not just government-deemed healthy, fresh foods, but all grocery staples. A recent Conference Board of Canada report contained eye-popping numbers; a one-kilogram bag of rice costing $2.19 in Toronto costs $11.99 in Rankin Inlet.

The government should also encourage self-sustainability, especially hunting.

But the start-up costs–snowmobile, gas, and satellite phone–easily tops more than $1,000. “Hunting and fishing is the main way of obtaining traditional foods in the north,” says Bronson. But, like diapers, the cost isn’t subsidized.

Another option could be keeping small farm animals.

The Kativik Regional government in northern Quebec, last month, for instance, held workshops on how people living there can keep chickens, for eggs; and rabbits, for fresh meat. Locals are also looking at growing their own food in greenhouses and are trying to eat more local berries and fish.

Northern agriculture may be a way to get more fresh food here without having to ship it in.

Andrew Cassidy is the mayor of Hay River, N.W.T. He’s also a farmer and the executive director of the Territorial Farmers Association. He believes small-scale agriculture is one way to food security.

This past year, the association enrolled 14 students from across the territory into a farm-school program where they learned everything from transplanting and seeding to harvesting and marketing. The students then returned to their communities with new knowledge of what is possible.

“People want to grow things but they aren’t sure what they can grow and when they can grow it,” says Cassidy, himself a farmer of tomatoes, cherries and other crops.

Cassidy believes small-scale agriculture can have a future similar to that of the northern forest industry. This past July, the feds announced a multi-year investment of more than $5.7 million to create opportunities for a sustainable wood biomass industry in the Northwest Territories, funding that aims to create a sustainable industry with long-term jobs. Cassidy thinks funding could kick-start northern farming as well.

Back in Carcross, Baker, the student farmer, crouches down in the garden, his knees pressing into the soil. Three other members of the program watch as he assembles a garden till that arrived in the mail.

“I’ve never used one of these before,” he says, fastening the last screw into place and rising to his feet. “I just hope it works.” With his back to the village, he pushes down on the handles, digging the till into the soft earth.

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