'How can people afford this?': James Bay communities struggle to eat healthily

People living in remote First Nation communities on the James Bay Coast have to spend over half of their income on food in order to meet basic nutritional requirements, according to a new study released on Monday by Food Secure Canada.

High food prices due to increasing dependence on imported goods and rise of food harvesting costs: study

People living in remote First Nation communities on the James Bay Coast have to spend over half of their income on food in order to meet basic nutritional requirements, according to a new study by Food Secure Canada.

"Paying for Nutrition: A Report on Food Costing in the North" reveals the cost of feeding a family in northern Canada is twice as much as the south with prices staggering from $8.65 for about 1.4 kilograms of apples in Fort Albany, Ont., to $8.99 for a box of Corn Flakes in Moose Factory, Ont.

"It's ridiculous," Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief, Jonathan Solomon, said. He is the senior representative for seven First Nations in the western James Bay.

"How can people afford this? Because most of the First Nation communities have 80 to 70 per cent of unemployment and they're on social assistance."

In June 2015, the average monthly cost of groceries in Attawapiskat was $1,909 compared to $847 in Toronto, according to the study.
People in northern communities are struggling to put basic, quality food on the table, according to NDP MP Charlie Angus. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Shopping at one store 'a trap' 

"The report confirms what we're hearing on the ground that the crisis of food in the north is at such a level that we have children literally going hungry, families unable to put basic, quality food items on the table because of the incredible prices they have to pay," Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus said.

"What kind of country thinks it's ok not only that children don't have access to clean drinking water, but children don't have access to food on their tables?"

The study shows that the selection and quality of retail food in the Mushkegowuk territory is limited, and communities are usually serviced by only one grocery store. 

"That store extracts any income that they can and people are heavily in debt for the most of it," said Joseph Leblanc, an advisor on the report and the executive director of the Social Planning Council of Sudbury.

"There is a trap that people fall into shopping at that one store and it is something that really needs to be addressed," he said.

'Solutions are empowering local people'

The elevated costs are due to increasing dependence on imported goods and the rising costs of food harvesting, according to the report. 

"The solutions are empowering local people to meet as many of their needs as they can with as many local resources as they can," Leblanc said, noting that the prices of seeds, and fishing and hunting equipment is rising.

As a result of the high prices, people end up buying a lot of processed food. 

"What we see sometimes is children with pop and chips because you can get more of it than you can milk, quality vegetables or meat," Angus said.
Grand Chief of Mushkegowuk Council, Jonathan Soloman, calls the price of healthy food in his territory "ridiculous." (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Nutrition North Canada needs 'overhaul'

Fort Albany and Attawapiskat are serviced by the federal government's Nutrition North Canada program to subsidize the high cost of perishable, nutritious food, but the study suggests that the assistance may not be properly passed on from the retailer to the consumer in all cases.

Angus said he thinks the program needs an "overhaul," and is trying to work with the federal government to address the program's transparency and performance. 

The authors of the report do not believe that lowering the costs of healthy food in northern communities is enough to address food insecurity. 

Rather, a broader comprehensive strategy is needed that includes guaranteed minimum incomes that are in line with the higher cost of living in the north and having a healthy diet.

The authors recommend targeting federal funding to support grassroots and sustainable community initiatives, which Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon thinks could include greenhouses.

"We call on the federal and provincial governments to make access to nutritionally adequate and culturally appropriate food a basic human right in Canada," the authors write.


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: