After decades of shipping food to the north under the Food Mail Program, as of April 1, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada launched Nutrition North Canada, a new food subsidy program to get healthier food to the Canada’s most northern peoples.

While the federal government is heralding the program as being better for the people and retailers as it is the latter group that will now have the advantage of organizing the best means of transporting their goods, just like in the rest of the country, not everyone is convinced that this is the best plan available.

As Leo Doyle, the acting director for Nutrition North Canada, explained both programs feature subsidies but the new one offers special subsidies for fresh produce, meats and other perishable items in particular as there is no other means of shipping them other than by plane.

When it comes to other dry goods, canned items and various sundries, such as cosmetics, soaps or even tampons, it is up to the retailer to negotiate the cheapest and often the “greenest” means to transport these items.

Since the 1960s, food had been shipped to remote communities in the Northwest Territories, Nunavik and other far north Aboriginal communities through the Food Mail program, where the transpiration was handled by Canada Post and subsidized by the federal government.

Doyle explained that the shipping costs were not actually reflective of the real costs because of the subsidies; the rates were about $0.80/kg with some additional fees.

“It worked out for perishable food to about $0.90/kg. For non-perishables it depended, it was about $1/kg in the northern parts of the program-eligible area and about $2.15/kg in the Territories. The real cost of shipping that perishable or non-perishable food usually was considerably more although the difference was less if you were in less remote places like the northern parts of the provinces,” said Doyle.

Under Nutrition North, each eligible community is given a subsidy rate that is reflective of the difference between the actual cost to ship the product and what the government was paying.

The idea is not to force retailers to use services like Canada Post to ship via air only but allow them to find cheaper means of getting the goods delivered if they so desire.

“This could mean finding different routes that make more sense. The program model is set up in a way that is reflective of the way things would be if the government wasn’t involved at all as it allows retailers and shippers to figure out what the best routes would be to begin with. This is how it works everywhere else in Canada,” said Doyle.

Doyle said the change in programs came about for a number of reasons. Canada Post had its own complaints because it was never set up for food freight delivery and the program was putting a strain on its service. Canada Post was asking for an additional $9 million to be able to continue carrying out the service.

There were also complaints from the retailers and clients that when fresh produce would reach its destination, it would often be in poor shape or spoiled, leaving very little desirability for the consumers to purchase it.

However, the new program was not created as a cost-cutting means for the federal government. Doyle said INAC will now be spending more than it ever has to get nutritious foods to the north. And, an additional $2.9 million will now go annually to Health Canada to help support nutrition education initiatives to support healthy food choices to educate northerners about what they should be eating.

“One of the challenges that we have had in the change from Food Mail to NN was that we were trying to remove the financial incentive for people to fly in products like flour that could be readily brought in by marine transportation service which is less energy intense and less costly way of moving products,” said Doyle.

When it comes to transportation, Doyle said the government is encouraging retailers to make alternative arrangements through whatever means works best for them, such as sea freight, truck delivery via ice roads or other means.

While there are still subsidies on all of the products being brought into the north, it is only the perishable items that have a high subsidy rate, anything else from canned goods to flour has a much lower subsidy rate and is therefore considerably more expensive if the retailer opts to fly it in.

“The grocers have told us that they can bring in dozens and dozens of semi-tractor-trailers worth of food and product at considerably less expensive prices than flying it in,” said Doyle.

Under the new program, retailers are also expected to pass these savings on the clients and the hope is that this will encourage shoppers to buy the more nutritious foods as they are now being offered it at a reduced rate.

To ensure that the savings are actually being passed on to customers, Doyle said the retailers and food suppliers have a legal agreement with INAC that didn’t exist under the old program as there was no assurance under Food Mail. The 29 food suppliers that have currently signed to Nutrition North have given the government the right to audit them to collect data on their pricing practices and volumes that they are shipping. The government has also already sent auditors to some of these suppliers to see if this is actually happening.

At the same time, the government recognizes that perhaps not enough communication happened prior to the program switchover as many communities have had difficulty with the new subsidies, making new arrangements for shipping and learning how to work with the new required paperwork.

For this reason Doyle said the government has made allowances in certain circumstances so that the program will not come into effect until October 2012.

Despite this, some communities are flat out refusing to participate in the program. According to the CBC, Yellowknife’s Co-Op and Extra Foods chain have opted out of Nutrition North because they had seen “very small insignificant reductions” in the costs of produce items. At the same time, the store chain complained that the program involved too much paperwork as it requires each product to be weighed and itemized for every order.

The North West Company, who are one of the 29 food retailer chains in the north that have signed on to Nutrition North, has been quick to announce to the public what kind of a difference the new program has made when it comes to consumers.

In a recent press release they announced that the price of iceberg lettuce had gone down 26% from $7.09 to $5.25 per head and a 3lb bag of Red Delicious apples will now cost $11.29, down from $11.89, showing a 5% price change.

As for those retailers who are not satisfied with the new program, Doyle said that after the federal election the government will focus on communicating with northern citizens about the value of the program and will also work with retailers to show them the program’s value.

In Inukjuak (formerly Port Harrison), Johnny Kasudluak, a Cordon Bleu-educated chef who ran for the Green Party in the last federal election, said so far the program is making things very difficult for the 1400 residents of his coastal community.

In the space of a week he saw the price of a 2.5kg bag of flour rise from $7 to a whopping $11. This jump has Kasudluak concerned as he worries that his people won’t be able to afford to make bannock, a daily staple.

At that, with high unemployment rates and rampant poverty, Kasudluak said you can hear families calling into the local radio station on a daily basis to beg for food from other community members when they have run out.

“A lot of the foods that they are used to eating have increased because they are not considered nutritious by the program but this has been the main diet of the population for a long time. Cans increased a bit and that includes canned vegetables,” said Kasudluak.

This is how his people have adapted however he explained, the Inuit community has become accustomed to eating canned fruits and vegetables but the preference is for foods like eggs, bacon and toast but the price of bacon has shot up significantly.

At the same time, Kasudluak has no idea as to how the Nutrition North program is going to help his people as the only means of accessing the community is by plane and he said it’s the same thing for many communities in Nunavik.

“Ice roads? What planet do they live on? There are only a few communities in the Territories and in the provinces that use ice roads. The majority of places in the north don’t use ice roads.

“Planes are the only way. In the summer, there is the option of sea transportation. But for a few years now I have been talking to the two store managers in my community and they have both said that air freight is basically no different than sea freight when you take into account the high cost of fuel,” said Kasudluak.

With prices on the rise for the staples the communities have adapted to, Kasudluak acknowledged that these price increases in dry and canned goods would also mean that it would become even more costly for families to go hunting as they can only subsist off of what they have brought until a kill is made.

He said this is for the luckier members of the community as many of his people cannot get out to camps because they can’t even afford a skidoo or fuel for it.

Though he agrees that having healthier food available at lower prices is good, Kasudluak is uncertain if it will really take off amongst his people as they are encountering many new items they have never seen before, like squash and radishes, which may be hard to integrate into the Inuit diet. He said the diet in his community is very basic and that people have adapted to eating a certain way.

“From the Food Mail program to Nutrition North we have seen various changes, especially when the new product labels were being put out. Sometimes the NN labels will actually show the difference between the old and new price, but the previous price doesn’t always match what we were actually paying before the NN program. There really is a discrepancy and some of the prices are much higher,” said Kasudluak.

In reality, only time will tell how effective the new program is and how well the people of the north can adapt to it. For more info: