In Tulita, N.W.T., the price of food skyrocketed this month in the weeks before the winter road opened to trucks. Residents say the community needs to find ways to keep food prices down year-round.
The community of about 500 residents gets supplies by barge, by winter road or by air.
When prices at the local Northern Store jumped in early January, residents began posting photos of the prices on Facebook: $53.49 for a 10-kilogram bag of flour, $10.25 for a pint of grape tomatoes and $90.96 for a case of bottled water.
The manager of Tulita's Northern Store declined an interview. Derek Reimer, director of business development for the North West Company, the owner of Northern Stores, said in an email that, "Unfortunately at times the consumer demand exceeds the available supply in our warehouse and we need to ship products in by air, which costs significantly more than shipping by winter road."
Tulita's winter road opened to heavy vehicles on Jan. 19, four days later than it opened last year.
North-Wright Airways, one of the airlines that services Tulita, charges $3.96 per pound for shipping freight. The North West Company has not disclosed how much it pays to ship freight by air to Tulita.
Reimer said a weak Canadian dollar is also to blame for higher food prices. On top of that, he said floods in California have damaged crops and limited supply of some fruits and vegetables — raising prices even further.
Reimer added that the average price of perishables in Northern Stores has dropped by about 8.9 per cent since 2011 thanks to subsidies from the federal government's Nutrition North program and lower freight rates negotiated by the company.
'We need another store'
Susie Silastiak, an elder in Tulita, lives on a fixed pension and says she can't afford spikes in food prices.
"It's like take it or leave it," she said.
She cares for her disabled husband and says she routinely runs out of money.
"You eat very well for maybe about a week to 10 days. Then for half the month you are struggling. It's really made a huge impact on the people here in Tulita."
Silastiak said residents without savings or a credit card can't afford to barge stockpiles of food into the community in the summer at lower prices. They also can't afford to drive food up on the winter road when it opens to lighter traffic.
That means many residents rely on the Northern Store year round and she said she fears that the store may be taking advantage of its customers.
"We definitely need another store here," says Silastiak, adding that competition in Tulita would help drive food prices down.
Tim Tomczynski, the economic development officer for the Hamlet of Tulita, is the former manager of the community's Northern Store. He left for the hamlet last year.
As store manager, he says he tried to keep prices stable even if it meant a short-term loss for the store.
"Being middle management, so to speak, you are stuck in the middle," says Tomczynski.
He said he supports a second store.
"Competition would be fantastic," says Tomczynski.
But he said rushing into a partnership with another private for-profit retailer is not in the community's interest.
"It's about looking after the community because without these communities, where would these companies be?"
As for Tulita running a second store independently, Tomczynski foresees some challenges. He said it would be difficult to negotiate low prices with large national suppliers — prices low enough to make a difference in Tulita.
Growing their own food
Another hurdle is that the community may have signed an agreement with the store's former owner, the Hudson's Bay Company, agreeing not to compete against it or even allow a second store in town.
The chief of Tulita is fuzzy on the details, and so is the hamlet.
"We want to see if yes this was in place. Did this happen and what were the terms?" says Tomczynski.
In the meantime, Tomczynski has other strategies to increase food security. He sees gardening as a path to reducing dependency on food brought in from the south.
"It makes so much sense to grow your own food," he said. "And seeing someone pick out a carrot right from the garden and see the look on their face that, 'Wow I grew this?'''
The community built two greenhouses last summer and Tomczynski said soil and seed will arrive on the winter road shortly.
All-season road needed now, says chief
Tulita Chief Frank Andrew said he supports gardening and the greenhouses, but upgrading the winter road to an all-season road is a more pressing issue for food security.
"Our elders have had meetings talking about the roads," said Andrew.
"We need it now, they are saying. We need it because of the Mackenzie River. It's going really low, they said. We can't depend on the barge."
Two consecutive years of low water levels have affected supply barges and the winter road season is also weather dependent.
If current warming trends continue, temporary spikes in food prices could become permanent — forcing residents to rely even more on each other or on country food like caribou, a dwindling resource that the community is trying to preserve.