At the Northern Store in Fort Albany First Nation, a fly-in community on James Bay, a bag of spinach can cost $7.50 and a bag of apples can reach $13. The price of food garners so much attention that it can even start rumours, said Gigi Veeraraghavan, a community worker at Peetabeck Health Services.
The alternative to this fresh produce, until recently, has been the mostly processed food sold at the two convenience stores, gas bars or items ordered from Timmins and sent by mail.
This lack of affordable fresh fruits and vegetables in the north is not unlike the situation in some low-income neighbourhoods in the big cities of southern Canada, as well as the United States. In these food deserts you are more likely to find pop and chips than carrots or lettuce. So when people in Fort Albany figured out how to bring affordable produce into town, by teaming up with FoodShare, a Toronto non-profit that works to combat food deserts, they ended up creating a new way of distributing food in the north. They cut out the middleman, passed the savings on to the community and created a model that will be rolled out to other remote communities, starting this summer.
About every other week since 2011, a skid of fresh fruit and vegetables destined for Fort Albany is purchased at Toronto's Food Terminal with the help of FoodShare. The skid is loaded onto a truck that makes the more than 700-kilometre drive north to Cochrane, where the food is transferred to a train bound for Moosonee. The final leg of the journey is by plane. Unless weather delays the trip, the food arrives three days after leaving Toronto, and Veeraraghavan and others set up a market in the school gym. You could buy spinach there recently for $1.75 a bag and apples for $5 – that is, if you got there early enough.
"It's a crush. If you are not in there when the doors are open, 15 minutes later there's nothing left," Veeraraghavan said.
Locals also come to pick up the food they pre-order – it comes via the "Good Food Box," which arrives on the skid and includes items such as potatoes, carrots, cucumber and sometimes even cantaloupe. It costs about $40. "The same items at the Northern store are $101.36," said Nishnawbi Aski Nation Deputy Grand Chief Goyce Kakegamic.
The cost of flying the food into Fort Albany is partly covered by the Nutrition North Canada subsidy for which businesses importing food to the north are eligible.
Food prices have long been exorbitant in northern communities and, according to Joseph LeBlanc, who is a community project co-ordinator with the Nishawbe Aski Nation, importing fresh, affordable produce to Fort Albany has profound significance. "To have a say in the food system in our community is to have control over what is sold," he said. "What's available at the Northern store and your budget determines what you buy to feed your family. The choices you make are not about what you want to eat."
Throughout Canadian history, control of the food supply has been used as an instrument of power. The new book Clearing the Plains by James Daschuk documents how Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, had a policy of starvation to clear the plains of aboriginal people to make way for Europeans.
Today's lack of healthy food in the north, the result of many complex factors, has a clear impact on the population. According to Health Canada, First Nations people who live on a reserve have a three to five times higher rate of diabetes than other Canadians. This has been linked to the foods for sale in places like Fort Albany. "We started to have more problems when canned food came into our communities," said Kakegamic, when game meats were replaced with products such as canned meat – "we call it bush steak," he said.
Today, when a box of fresh spinach and even mangoes arrives in Fort Albany, the imports are meant to replace processed foods and complement traditional foods, such as game and blueberries. The response has been strong. At first it was only women who came, said Veeraraghavan. Now elders and men come too, she said, and in the same way you might see a kid in the city using pocket change to buy gum, children in Fort Albany visit the market on their own to buy fruit.
The arrival of affordable food has led to other changes too. According to LeBlanc, they've tracked a downward trend in prices at the store in Fort Albany. And when Veeraraghavan's children ask for a second serving of fruit: "Now I can tell my kids, you can have another one," she said.