Access to affordable food in Nunavut worsened after the introduction of Nutrition North Canada – the federal government’s program meant to lower the prices for nutritious food in remote northern communities – according to a new study.
The study, published Tuesday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, measures the level of food insecurity in Nunavut’s 10 largest communities across the first four years of Nutrition North (from its launch in 2011 to full implementation in 2014). The program is still in effect today.
Instead of food insecurity decreasing in that time, it increased by 13.2 percentage points to 46.6 per cent of Nunavut households who said in 2014 they experienced inadequate access to food, according to the study. Household food insecurity is defined in the study as having insecure or inadequate access to food due to financial constraints.
“We know that a huge number of people aren’t able to put food on their table. And we have this program that’s purpose is to improve affordability and access to food,” said the lead author on the study, Andrée-Anne Fafard St-Germain, a PhD candidate in the University of Toronto’s Department of Nutritional Sciences.
“But really, it’s completely unaccountable to that outcome – or really, to any outcome of people’s ability to access food.” Ms. Fafard St-Germain said that the government has focused in the past on measures such as volume of food transported, rather than the actual experiences of those affected.
Her study compiles data from the Canadian Community Health Survey, and measures all of the households that said that they’ve experienced at least one of the following in the previous year: Worrying about running out of food, compromising on the quality of food purchased, or eating less or skipping meals altogether because they can’t afford food.
The study’s findings should come as no surprise to those who have studied the issue in the region, said Aluki Kotierk, the head of the Inuit advocacy group Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated.
Food insecurity is linked with a wide range of health issues, as well as higher mortality rates. But there are also mental and emotional repercussions, Ms. Kotierk said.
“As parents, we all want to be able to provide for our children. Inuit parents are no different,” she said. “People walk around feeling great shame that they’re unable to provide basic food to their families and household.”
Nutrition North has received widespread criticism since its launch in 2011. The program offers retailers a subsidy that is meant to be passed on to consumers, with the aim of making food in northern communities cheaper and more accessible.
But critics have long argued that the program lacks accountability, and has done little to remedy the problem. Among the criticisms are that the retailer subsidies are not passed on as savings to consumers. Others too have argued that the list of subsidized products, which is focused primarily on perishable food items, is too limiting.
In a statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations (who is temporarily taking on the northern affairs portfolio while colleague Dominic LeBlanc is on leave) said that the government has made significant improvements to the program in recent years.
“We know that this program under the Harper conservative government was not working,” she said. She pointed to the government’s additional $13.8-million in spending each year on Nutrition North, and said they’ve undertaken extensive consultation with local communities to look for improvements.
“It is completely unacceptable that many Northerners are still struggling to feed their families,” she said. She pointed to the government’s additional investments in the program, and added that they’ve undertaken extensive consultation with local communities to look for improvements. Some of those changes, she said, include: increased food subsidies, expanding the list of items available for subsidies, and measures to improve transparency.
“We know there is more work to do, and we will continue to work with northern and Indigenous partners to develop meaningful and lasting solutions to food insecurity in the North,” the statement read.
But Ms. Fafard St-Germain said that far more action is required to address the problem. “These are relatively small changes – and positive changes. But we need bigger and more meaningful initiatives that respond to the needs of community members,” she said.
Ms. Kotierk echoed this. “We do not want special treatment above and beyond what other Canadians receive,” she said. “We expect that having good nutritious food is a basic human right. Being able to live with dignity in our homeland is a basic human right.”