$20 hamburgers and $2 bananas: The cost of food insecurity in Canada's North

Published Oct. 21, 2020 3:15 p.m. ET

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A price tag lists the price of a jug of orange juice at a grocery store in Iqaluit, Nunavut on Dec. 8, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS)

TORONTO -- Remote Indigenous communities face a problem as the changing climate makes it more difficult to access traditional sources of food.

That issue, which is detailed in a new report by advocacy group Human Rights Watch, is exacerbated by the fact that many communities have a lack of alternatives that are both affordable and nutritious.

“It’s difficult for our people to access healthy foods,” Vern Cheechoo said Wednesday at a press conference that coincided with the report’s release.

Cheechoo works for the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents eight Cree First Nations in northern Ontario. None of the eight are connected to the province’s road network. As is the case in many northern Indigenous communities, supplies can only be brought in by ice road when the waterways are frozen over, by boat when they aren’t, or by airplane anytime.

All of these options involve significant costs, meaning retail prices in fly-in reserves rarely resemble anything seen in southern, road-connected communities.

Lorraine Netro of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation – based in Old Crow, Yukon, the only fly-in settlement in the territory – told the press conference that she recently paid $20 for one hamburger patty and $7 for three bananas.

“When we want to purchase basic staples like flour and sugar and tea, those costs are extremely high,” she said.

Most fly-in communities face high rates of poverty and low rates of employment, making the high grocery prices even less affordable. Although there are programs designed to bring food to children, seniors and others most at need, they do not necessarily provide enough food for a full, healthy diet.

“Some of these students go to school and that’s the only time they have a meal to eat,” Cheechoo said, noting that even this has not been possible this year in communities where schools have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

SUBSIDY PROGRAM PANNED

Northern grocery items are not subject to any special price regulations, but they are partially subsidized through the federal government’s Nutrition North Canada (NNC) initiative. Introduced in 2011, NNC was a replacement for a previous program known as “Food Mail,” covering fewer foods in an attempt to encourage healthier eating.

Meat, milk, eggs, bread, fruit and frozen vegetables are among the basic products subsidized under NNC. Rice, canned vegetables and soup, unsweetened juice and tea are some of the items that were covered by Food Mail but not NNC.

The program has achieved some success in keeping northern food prices from rising even higher. The federal government told Human Rights Watch that the price of a “nutritious diet” in NNC-eligible communities fell by 1.03 per cent between 2011 and 2019, while the consumer cost of similar items in the rest of Canada increased by 10.5 per cent.

Still, the program is largely disliked in the North. A search for “Nutrition North” on Twitter brings up a steady diet of criticism, interspersed with images of groceries being sold at prices that would shock many Canadians. More than 4,000 accounts retweeted one tweet from September that showed a 383-gram vegetable tray retailing for $70.

In 2016, a government report found that NNC was “not having a big enough effect on the price of food.” Modifications were made to the program in 2019, including high subsidy rates for milk, baby food and formula, and frozen fruits and vegetables.

In its report, Human Rights Watch noted another concern about NNC: that retailers essentially face “no repercussions” if they abuse the program. Although retailers are required to convert the NNC money they receive into savings for their customers, the only punishment the government has at its disposal is to kick companies out of the program for repeated misbehavior. Since most NNC participants are the only grocery stores in their communities, this would leave residents of those communities with no access at all to subsidized groceries.

“The federal government has few means of ensuring retailer compliance and lacks effective grievance mechanisms for communities,” the report states.

According to Human Rights Watch, NNC cost the federal government approximately $80 million in 2018-19. A one-time increase of $25 million was announced in April as part of the government’s COVID-19 relief package for northern communities.

However, there are a lot of steps between the government announcing funding and shoppers seeing savings at the supermarket – and many northerners feel far more is needed to steer their communities back toward healthy eating.

“[NNC] is attempting to provide funding, but it’s just a drop in the bucket,” Cheechoo said.


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