Nutritious to who? Northerners say food subsidy program needs overhaul

The Federal government's often controversial Nutrition North program came under fire again Monday night, as Northern residents argued it's not keeping people from going hungry or making most food affordable.

'If a family can't afford to buy a food basket, it doesn't matter how healthy it is'

'The problem is not the cost of transporting food,' said an Iqaluit resident at Monday night's public consultation on Nutrition North. 'It's that people can't afford it.' (Elyse Skura/CBC)

People in Nunavut's capital say the Nutrition North program needs a complete overhaul, since it's not keeping people from going hungry and it's not lowering the costs of foods Northerners really eat. 

People are weighing in on potential changes to Nutrition North, the often controversial federal food subsidy program. (Nick Murray/CBC)
In the continued aftermath of a critical report from the federal auditor general, Nutrition North Canada is in the midst of an "engagement tour," meeting with 20 communities across the North to break down what's not working and how it might be revamped.

"Nutrition North has an impossible task," said Iqaluit's Brian Tattuinee. "You say you want to make food more affordable, but how do you do that? 

"You lower the cost to this level, but people can't get to that level. People still go hungry." 

Tattuinee was by no means alone in his dissatisfaction of the efficacy of the food subsidy program, with a few dozen residents spending more than two hours volleying complaints at the consultants hired to moderate the meeting. 

'I'd like to see it thrown out the window'

From comments about the program's apparent lack of transparency, to complaints about the products covered by the subsidy, the group took issue with practically every aspect of the program. 

"First of all, I'd like to see it thrown out the window," said Leesee Papatsie. "I'd like to see a program for hunters, for seamstresses."

Papatsie, a well-known Nunavut food activist who founded the popular Feeding My Family Facebook page, says the program was doomed to fail from the outset because the list of subsidies doesn't reflect a Northern diet. 

"Nutritious according to who?" she asked at the meeting. "That's your nutrition. Not ours."

Residents of Iqaluit had a long list of complaints about the Nutrition North Canada program during a public consultation Monday, including concerns over what products are being subsidized. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

One of the most contentious issues related to Nutrition North is what's covered under the program. Many people said the impact of the funding is diluted when it's used for a range of products only the affluent can afford, from "tofu burgers" to "dragonfruit."

In every community so far, residents have pushed for greater support for traditional food, including fish and caribou meat.

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett, who was not at last night's meeting, has already taken notice, saying her department is considering "some pilots or experiments" aimed at better supporting hunters.

Subsidized, but not affordable?

Nutrition North Canada provides subsidies to retailers which partly cover the high transportation costs involved in shipping food to remote communities. 

Each eligible community has two levels of subsidies: a higher subsidy for what Nutrition North has deemed "the most nutritious perishable foods" and another for other healthy foods. 

In Iqaluit, the higher subsidy is $2.30/kg and the lower subsidy is $1.00/kg.

"I think something like the basics of flour, which is so expensive already to buy, really should be part of the higher subsidy list, because a lot of us use flour everyday," said Pat Angnakak, an Iqaluit-based MLA. 

Harry Lake, a private consultant hired by Indigenous and Northern Affairs, explains how the Nutrition North subsidy works at a public consultation in Iqaluit. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Angnakak questioned the government's process of identifying which foods should be covered by the program. She says the program needs to identify the foods, like flour, which are purchased by the North's most impoverished residents. 

"If a family can't afford to buy a food basket, it doesn't matter how healthy it is. They're not going to get it," she said. 

"I've heard from lots of people that they have a baby and formula is too expensive, so they buy carnation milk instead." 

Addressing issues in the North

For Tattuinee, the goal of fighting food insecurity won't be reached by simply targeting the cost of transporting food and criticized the government for not being able to provide a metric by which it can measure the program's success. 

"You have the cost of electricity, the cost of fuel, the retailer has to pay staff," he said. "You're not changing the costs here. You're just changing who pays for it."

Instead, Tattuinee says the government should be looking at the overarching issues Northerners face, including a lack of vital infrastructure. 
Northerners who came out to a public consultation in Iqaluit Monday night say Nutrition North needs an overhaul. (Elyse Skura/CBC)

Despite their frustrations, several people at the meeting expressed hope that the program will be improved. 

"I think that it's very easy to be critical. It's very easy to say this isn't working," said Kris Mullaly. "It's also important for you to say, here's what I think should be done."

There's still plenty of time to do just that. Nutrition North Canada will visit several more Northern communities over the next two months. It's also accepting written submissions through its website.


Elyse Skura is a reporter based in Tokyo, and a consulting producer for NHK World Japan. She’s also worked for CBC in Iqaluit, Ottawa and Thunder Bay.