The price we pay for healthy food

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May/June 2011 | by Mary Simon

I am often called upon to speak to groups of people across the country, to tell them about the Inuit of Canada and the challenges we face. It is usually a wide-ranging discussion, focused, of course, on gaps in social services, on our housing shortage, and on our goals for education. But I make a point of going beyond the statistics to tell people what it is really like to live in the Arctic.

Many are genuinely unaware of the staggering cost of living in our communities. They are shocked to see that it costs $13 for a jug of milk or $17 for a bag of red grapes — foods that they buy for their own family every week at a much lower cost.

And they are even more astonished to learn that these are the prices we pay after the application of a federal subsidy that costs the government tens of millions of dollars each year. Without such subsidies, a 10-pound bag of potatoes would cost $65 in Pond Inlet, instead of $18.

In October, Inuit felt the real impact of the removal of those subsidies and the transition to the new Nutrition North Canada program when a key range of non-perishables and essential non-food items were cut from the list of eligible products. Almost immediately, the price of diapers, bottled juice and canned goods doubled in price.

I addressed members of the House of Commons Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to ask for caution as changes were implemented because of the drastic impact such price increases would have on struggling families.

Yet amid the ensuing debate, many of the issues surrounding food security and small business development were lost. Among them was the fact that Inuit themselves had lobbied for changes to the old Food Mail program so that mechanisms could be introduced to ensure that subsidies were passed on to consumers and to reduce spoilage of perishable items.

We also lobbied to eliminate the circuitous route food was forced to travel — through southern “entry points,” such as Val d’Or, Quebec. For instance, perishables travelling to Repulse Bay, Nunavut, would be loaded in Winnipeg and trucked to Thompson, Manitoba, transferred onto a train car destined for Churchill, Manitoba, and then put on an airplane headed to Rankin Inlet before, finally, three days later, landing on store shelves.

I was very vocal about my concerns about the short timeframe for the implementation of Nutrition North Canada, which did not take into account sealift schedules, and was perhaps based on an incomplete understanding of the economic impacts on independent retailers, which could ultimately decrease the choices available to Inuit consumers.

But I remain pleased by the program’s focus on nutrition, an obvious benefit of the inclusion of Health Canada in the planning process, as opposed to Canada Post, which administered the Food Mail program. I am also optimistic about the new program’s eventual plans to incorporate country food (so long as traditional Inuit sharing practices are not unnecessarily burdened by rules and regulations).

Still, we do not yet know how the new program’s funding will grow to meet escalating demand due to population increase and rising awareness of the program. After all, it is Inuit consumers who will bear the brunt of Nutrition North Canada’s growing pains.

Ultimately, the success of this program will be measured in the faces of Inuit parents and children — in packed cupboards and full bellies. It is our responsibility to keep them foremost in our minds.