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A hamburger and hot dog are left unfinished as local Inuit help themselves to seal meat and arctic char during a community event in Iqaluit, Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic August 22, 2009. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS)
A hamburger and hot dog are left unfinished as local Inuit help themselves to seal meat and arctic char during a community event in Iqaluit, Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic August 22, 2009. (ANDY CLARK/REUTERS)

global food security

Critics slam Canada’s northern food program Add to ...

This article is part of Globe B.C.’s eight-part weekly series on food security in Canada. Visit this page for the rest of the series so far.

For Jerry Natanine, grocery shopping is an exercise in strategy: To feed his family of five, the mayor and resident of Clyde River, Nunavut, needs to look for the most economically priced goods – usually those that are frozen and come in larger quantities.

With frozen chicken strips priced at $32, bacon $19 and a three- or four-pound frozen pork roast more than $30, it’s typical for the Natanines to spend upward of $600 a week on groceries. Shopping around isn’t an option because the northern store is the only grocery retailer in the small town of about 1,000.

It has long been a challenge to access healthy and affordable food in Canada’s remote northern communities, but a new federal program introduced three years ago was suppose to lessen some of the burden. It hasn’t. An article in the latest Canadian Journal of Public Health says the program’s flawed reporting structure means there is no meaningful way to gauge its effectiveness or hold it to account; meanwhile, locals say food prices are climbing.

Food insecurity exists across all provinces and territories, but is particularly pronounced in Nunavut, where the rate of food insecurity is the highest in Canada and among the highest in the world for an indigenous population in a developed country.

About 13 per cent of Canadian households – that’s about four million people, including 1.15 million children – experienced some level of food insecurity in 2012, according to a 2014 report by PROOF, an interdisciplinary team of researchers focused on issues of food insecurity. In Nunavut, the figure was 45.2 per cent.

The World Food Summit has defined food security as existing when “all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.”

In 2011, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada launched Nutrition North Canada, a program designed to offset the cost of transporting perishable foods – such as fruit, vegetables, meat, milk and eggs – to rural and remote northern communities. The retail subsidy program replaced a freight subsidy program called Food Mail, which was delivered through Canada Post Corp. since the 1960s.

Critics note that, under the new program, the list of eligible food items has changed considerably and staples such as dry rice, dry pasta and canned fruits and vegetables – as well as personal-care items such as toothpaste, soaps and shampoos – are no longer subsidized.

Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett said families are now spending more a week than they were under the Food Mail program. She slammed Nutrition North as a failure one year after implementation and continues to do so today.

“The story is exactly the same: It’s just not working,” Ms. Bennett said in an interview this week. “When people go to the checkout with their carts, it’s more expensive. Put very simply, they’re saying, ‘We used to be able to feed our families, and now we can’t.’”

Tracey Galloway, an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Manitoba, studied the program’s reporting structure and found that, three years after implementation, there was no way to determine whether Nutrition North is meeting its goal of making nutritious and perishable food more accessible and affordable in the north.

“There were two significant issues: first, a lack of transparency in how the subsidy rates for each community is determined – what information is collected, how often is that information re-evaluated, how the subsidy level is actually calculated for each community,” said Ms. Galloway, whose findings are in the September/October issue of the Canadian Journal of Public Health.

“Second, there’s a lack of accountability for demonstrating just how the value of the subsidy is passed on to consumers in the form of lower retail pricing.”

While the food-costing tool used to monitor prices – a composite “food basket” comprising 67 foods as an example of a nutritious diet for a family of four for one week – remains the same, it doesn’t break down the costs of individual items. That means there is no way to monitor how the price of individual items differs between old and new programs, over time or across different communities.

The federal government says that while the average cost of a food basket in communities eligible for a full subsidy under Nutrition North was higher in 2013 than 2012, it was still lower than the cost prior to the program’s introduction in 2011.

Michael Ferguson, Canada’s Auditor-General, announced in July, 2013, that his office would review the Nutrition North program. That review is expected to be tabled in Parliament in late November, according to his office.

Meanwhile, a new report by Food Banks Canada called HungerCount 2014 has found that food-bank use in Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut has climbed by 247 per cent from 2008 to 2014. The second biggest increase in Canada occurred in Manitoba, which saw food-bank usage increase by 52.5 per cent over the same time period.

For now, Mr. Natanine is left to shop strategically, balancing his purchases with “country foods” such as Arctic char and whale that local hunters and trappers either share or sell. But the price of hunting gear, gas and other related costs can make that practice difficult as well, he notes.

“What I have been trying to tell the [Nunavut] government is that if they give us power to come up with anti-price-gouging bylaws, then we can tackle this,” Mr. Natanine said. But there has been no response so far.

“Other than that, I don’t know.”

Facts

Nearly 13 per cent of Canadian households experienced some level of food insecurity in 2012, according to a 2014 report from PROOF, an international, interdisciplinary team of researchers focused on issues of food insecurity. This breaks down to 4.1 per cent who were marginally food insecure, 6 per cent who were moderately food insecure and 2.6 per cent who were severely food insecure.

While Nunavut had the highest prevalence of food insecurity that year, at 45.2 per cent, Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia accounted for the largest share – 84 per cent – of the total food insecure population, the report stated. Ontario had approximately 571,300 food insecure households, Quebec 437,000, B.C. 225,600 and Alberta 164,700.

A 2014 report specifically on aboriginal food security by the Council of Canadian Academies noted that, while more research is needed on the matter, it appears food insecurity has more negatively impacted the physical and mental health of northern aboriginal populations than aboriginal people in southern Canada and non-aboriginal people in both regions.

For example, while health indicators such as obesity and cardiovascular disease are major health problems across all demographics, rates are higher among northern aboriginal populations.

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