June 23, 2024

A recent study showing that only a fraction of a federal subsidy helps make food more affordable for Northerners has renewed calls for improvements within the Nutrition North program.

“We are grateful for the program, but would like to see more transparency,” said Nunavut Association of Municipalities president Joe Savikataaq Jr. “Yes, when you purchase an item it is listed right on the receipt how much you saved because of the program. But how much do we actually benefit from it? Who actually is benefitting more, the stores or the customers? We all know inflation and fuel prices have had a domino effect on everything, especially places that depend on air travel and air cargo. We also understand how expensive it is for freight, which is what this program is all about. Would be nice to see more info on for every dollar given to the program — how much is actually passed on?”

Nunavut MP Lori Idlout is again demanding that the federal government rectify the program’s ongoing issues.

“The Liberals have not done nearly enough to address food insecurity and the sky-high cost of groceries in the North,” Idlout stated. “Enormous food prices have been a concern for Northern residents for years, and the Liberals are only starting to take this crisis somewhat seriously now that it’s affecting the rest of the country. The Nutrition North program has only helped major grocers get richer, and we need an overhaul to bring costs down and support other approaches to access to food. Once again, Northerners are forgotten about and left behind.

“If the Liberals truly care about lowering food prices, they have to include serious measures for Northerners and stop waiting for grocery CEOs to do the right thing,” she added. “Northerners don’t need leaders who keep asking nicely, we need real leadership and action now to bring down food prices and encourage traditional methods of feeding people.”

Idlout and her NDP colleague Niki Ashton also voiced concerns over the program in November 2022.

“I completely and wholeheartedly agree that the Nutrition North program needs to have an overhaul,” Idlout said at the time. “There’s definitely a disparity between what the federal government is saying and what the communities are hearing.”

The program doles out $131 million a year in subsidies to retailers to help cover shipping costs to the North.

“This means that if the government pays a retailer $1 to ship an item, the price of that item should be $1 lower for consumers,” wrote a researcher from the University of Toronto involved in analyzing Nutrition North. However, “we found that for every dollar paid to a retailer to reduce shipping costs, the prices paid by consumers fell by only 67 cents. When we considered communities with a single grocery retail store affected by the January 2019 subsidy increase, we found that an extra dollar paid to retailers reduced consumer prices by only 26 cents.”

Federal explanation

Nunavut News asked Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC) to account for the study’s findings.

“The Nutrition North Program only evaluates prices and profitability of stores that are registered with the program,” replied CIRNAC spokesperson Megan MacLean. “Many communities have retailers who only have an indirect relationship with the Nutrition North program since they receive their products from southern suppliers registered with the program. CIRNAC works closely with Northern and Indigenous partners to monitor results of the Nutrition North program and seek input for ongoing improvements to ensure its operations are fully transparent.”

This response indicates that there may be a data gap, which begs questions about where the funds are going at each step of the supply chain. A complete picture is hard establish if only some local retailers choose to fully participate in the program.

MacLean further explained CIRNAC’s accountability measures.

“Retailers and suppliers are equally accountable and have a significant role to play. Each year, a sample of registered retailers and suppliers are selected to undergo a compliance review. This process helps determine whether they are complying with the terms and conditions of the funding agreement they signed, and includes an assessment of logistics efficiency, price transparency and profit margins. The department then works with retailers and suppliers to address the recommendations made by the third-party auditors and to develop action plans when required.”

MacLean also pointed to the department’s other grassroots initiatives such as the Harvester’s Support Grant, intended to “support the entirety of the harvesting practice and local food initiatives. The grant was co-developed with Indigenous partners and supports locally-led food security solutions and self-determination.” This is offered in addition to Nutrition North, which is specifically aimed at subsidizing store-bought foods.

“Funding flows through Indigenous governments and organizations to make sure that Northern food systems reflect the needs of communities and are culturally-appropriate. In the first year of its delivery, the grant supported over 5,500 harvesters. In addition, the Community Food Programs Fund supports food sharing activities in eligible communities, such as bulk buying, Elders’ meals programs, school food programs and others… in 112 isolated communities.”

MacLean noted that Nutrition North’s newly established Food Security Research Grant is offering further support in Northern communities. This grant supports Indigenous organizations and academics in conducting Indigenous-led food security research to fill data gaps on the cost of living and inform ongoing improvements to the subsidy program. In 2022-23, through these grants, CIRNAC funded five Indigenous-led research projects examining food access inequality and food insecurity, awarding a total of $1.2 million to successful applicants.”

Kira Wronska Dorward, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Nunavut News

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