First Nations families in Northern Ontario are spending more than half their income on groceries to meet basic nutritional requirements, according to a new report.
The report, released Monday by Food Secure Canada, is the first comprehensive study of its kind to compile and analyze the effect of high food prices in Northern Ontario communities. And, according to the report's authors, the program aimed at fixing the problem – which the federal government is currently expanding – is broken.
Taking a list of 67 basic food items – such as peanut butter, bread, ground beef and carrots, all part of Health Canada's National Nutritious Food Basket that represents a healthy diet – the researchers compiled grocery prices in Fort Albany, Attawapiskat and Moose Factory in June of last year.
Among the prices detailed in the report: nine dollars for Corn Flakes, $20 for one pound of ground beef in Moose Factory and almost $11 for a 2.5-kilogram bag of flour in Fort Albany.
The average monthly cost for a family of four to purchase the list of items in the northern communities, according to the researchers, is just less than $1,800. In Toronto, meanwhile, those same items would cost about $850 a month.
Certain items on Health Canada's list – such as chicken drumsticks, cabbage and turnips – weren't available in the three communities at all.
The high food prices mean families have to make difficult decisions, said Gigi Veeraraghavan, a community worker who lives in Fort Albany, and one of the authors of the report.
"People have to think carefully about what they do and choose to buy – what they can afford to provide their children, do with their free time, whether they have a vehicle or not and can fill it with gas."
She added that most families in her community are living paycheque to paycheque.
"I don't know anybody who has savings," she said.
Researchers from Dalhousie University, the University of Waterloo, Lakehead University and Mount Saint Vincent University also contributed to the report.
High food prices in Northern Canada have been well documented, and attributed to transportation costs, lack of competition (many communities have just one grocery store, which operates as a monopoly), higher heating costs and unreliable weather.
The federal government's attempts to address the issue, through a subsidy program called Nutrition North Canada, have been widely criticized as ineffective – including a 2014 Auditor-General's report that raised doubts on whether subsidies given to retailers were being properly passed on to consumers.
Two of the three communities highlighted in the Food Secure Canada report, Fort Albany and Attawapiskat, are already receiving full subsidies through the NNC program.
Despite the criticisms, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett announced earlier this year that the government will expand the NNC program to 37 additional northern communities by next month. At the same time, the government has begun a review of the NNC, in hopes of making the program more effective.
"The program is not working," Food Secure Canada's executive director Diana Bronson said in an interview. "The program is meant to make fresh food available at affordable prices. I think what we've seen at the communities we've studied is it's not effective at doing that."
Ms. Bronson said she hopes for a complete overhaul of the NNC program. One of the recommendations in the report is to look at implementing a guaranteed monthly income for residents in the north, to give residents more control as opposed to retailers.
"Our primary recommendation when it comes to food insecurity is to increase income," she said. "When we go about attacking food insecurity in other ways – roundabout ways, like subsidizing food retailers, it's not clear how people who are actually having trouble feeding their kids benefit from that."