Canada grapples with future of northern food security program

By Jim Bell, Nunatsiaq News - February 17, 2017

Now that her department’s consultation tour of northern communities has ended, Carolyn Bennett, the minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, said in the Senate Feb. 8 that she and her officials still have hard decisions to make before figuring out what to do with the much-criticized Nutrition North Canada program.

That community engagement tour began May 30, 2016 with a session in Old Crow, Yukon and continued through the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northern communities in six provinces. The final meeting was held this past Jan. 26 in Fort Albany, Ontario.

So for now, Bennett awaits a report from her officials on that tour, she said in response to a question from Sen. Charlie Watt of Nunavik during Senate question period.

“As you know, we’ve been consulting coast to coast to coast about what the changes to Nutrition North need to be. I will have a report shortly from my department, as well as other reports, and we hope that we will have your advice on this as well,” Bennett told Watt.

She also said her department must figure out what direction to take in responding to food insecurity in northern Canada — which she described as a “difficult challenge.”

One issue is how to take into account the northern allowances that government employees and others already receive to compensate for the high cost of living.

Another is whether to create a social policy aimed at those most in need such as chronically undernourished children, many of whom don’t get enough essential micro-nutrients, such as iron and vitamin D.

One study released in 2009 found that most pregnant women in the Baffin region are malnourished.

Another study, also released in 2009, found that about half of Nunavut’s children don’t get enough to eat.

And the Nunavut government’s Qanukkanniq report card recommended that children in school need lunch and snack programs immediately.

“Are things like Nutrition North a fairness program for northerners who also get a northern subsidy, particularly the people from the South living and working up there?” Bennett said.

“Or should it be an actual food security social policy that is about the preschoolers, 70 percent of whom are food insecure?”

And making that decision means that after listening to northerners, the department must make some hard decisions, she said.

“We’re going to have to decide whether this is a social program or a fairness issue,” Bennett said.

But she also said, “the system was broken,” and that “it is going to have to be a different way of thinking.”

She also said she’s learned the absence of Nutrition North subsidies for essential non-food items that families require, such as laundry detergent or diapers, are part of the current problem.

“Again, this is actually devastating for family members,” Bennett said.

In a submission to the federal government on the NNC program this past December, the Dieticians of Canada, a national association, said the NNC created some improvements when compared with Food Mail, but that it’s not targeted at those most in need, and that one root problem is a lack of money.

“The NNC program is effectively a form of indirect income support at the broader community level, subsidizing the price of food for all residents, and not targeted as an initiative to reduce household food insecurity,” the report said.

The Dieticians of Canada also said reducing food insecurity in northern Canada requires a “multi-pronged approach” that includes better income support.

“Income-based responses to household food insecurity are designed to provide a solution to address the root cause of household food insecurity, which is lack of money for basic needs within a household,” the group said.

The NNC, replaced the old food mail program on April 1, 2011 following numerous complaints about food mail, including high prices and other issues.

The NNC works by providing direct subsidies to retailers for food shipped by air cargo to a list of 121 eligible communities, based on the weight of the food they ship.

In 2015-16, the INAC forecast spending of about $71.8 million on the NNC. About $68.5 million of that went towards subsidies and about $3.4 million went to staff salaries and benefits, plus operation and maintenance.

Over the same period, Health Canada spent about $2.9 million on the NNC, mostly for nutrition education programs.

But now, the federal government’s spending on the NNC is likely closer to $85 million a year.

That’s because, as of Oct. 1, 2016, Ottawa added 37 more communities, most of them First Nations communities in the provinces, to the eligibility list, and announced an additional $64.5 million in spending over five years to pay for it.

That additional annual contribution will be capped in 2021 at $13.8 million.

Since its launch, Nutrition North Canada has become the target of numerous complaints from thousands of northern consumers, territorial governments and others, many of whom allege that northern retailers like North West Co. and Arctic Co-operatives Ltd. have used it to fatten their profit margins.

In November of 2014, the Auditor General of Canada, Michael Ferguson, tabled an audit report that found NNC does not ensure that retailers pass the full value of the subsidy on to customers.

Following those controversies, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government promised in the 2015 election campaign to revamp the program, a task that Bennett is still working on.