Nutrition North program failing to keep food healthy, affordable

University of Toronto researcher says program should be reformed with mandatory price caps on essential food

A researcher has found that a federal subsidy intended to reduce astronomical food prices for northern families has resulted in stale-dated, unreliable food on store shelves without making grocery bills more affordable.

Tracey Galloway of the University of Toronto, whose findings are to be published in a scientific journal later this month, says the Nutrition North program should be reformed with mandatory price caps on essential food.

"Without price caps and regulatory framework for pricing, the retailers have arbitrary control on how they set prices,'' she said from Iqaluit, where she was presenting her results. "We have not seen prices come down over the course of this subsidy.''

Food in the North costs between two and three times what it does in the south. Grapes were recently selling in Nunavut for more than $28 a kilogram.

Such costs are a major cause of food insecurity. In 2014, Nunavut's territorial nutritionist found almost three-quarters of Inuit preschoolers live in food-insecure homes. Half of youths 11 to 15 years old sometimes go to bed hungry.

Nutrition North is a $77-million program that, since it replaced the Food Mail initiative in 2011, has sought to reduce costs by subsidizing shipping to 121 communities in the three territories and the northern regions of the provinces. The federal government is reviewing the program and has held public meetings across the North.

Ottawa says that between 2011 and 2015, the cost of a food basket for a family of four dropped about five per cent and the weight of eligible items shipped north increased by about 25 per cent.

Retailers say the full subsidy has been passed on to consumers and federal compliance checks back that up.

Galloway said Nutrition North only created a price drop because there was a gap between when it began and Food Mail ended. The drop reflects the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized prices during the gap _ and not the two subsidy programs.

As well, because the program lacks Food Mail's quality checks, much of what winds up on northern shelves is past its best-before date— a complaint made repeatedly in the public meetings.

"Yesterday, I went to the grocery store to buy myself a can of soup and I turned it over and it had an expiry date of 2015 on it,'' said Galloway.

She also found prices varied significantly between communities. Igloolik and Hall Beach are only 70 kilometres apart and are serviced by the same flights, but food in Igloolik consistently costs 10 per cent more.

Nutrition North only subsidizes shipments and provides no incentives for consistency or affordability, she added.

"They get paid by the kilogram for what they ship, not for what they sell, and not for what they sell affordably. Many communities go weeks without fresh perishables in their store.''

Galloway concluded the list of items should be reviewed. Prices on essential items should be capped.

"I think we need price ceilings on all subsidized food, below which retailers can price competitively.''

A spokesperson from Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada was not available.

Galloway's findings echo many Inuit concerns.

"(Her study) proves beyond a doubt what we've been voicing all along—that Nutrition North is failing,'' said James Arreak, head of the Inuit land-claim group Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. "The program has to be reoriented so that the federal government's relationship should be with communities and not with retailers.''

Although food from the land is crucial in the North, Galloway found that average northerners get 60 per cent of their calories from store food.

"People are hungry and having a big challenge putting food on the table,'' said Arreak. "Even if they work, people have a hard time making ends meet because of the cost of living we face here.''

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