Opinion
Doug Brown/Flickr Commons
Chris Windeyer

More Mush From Nutrition North

Tossing money at retailers does virtually nothing to ease our status as the country's second-worst food security environment

I’m going to go out on an editorial limb and say that food is good.

I dream of a shopping cart piled high with exquisitely marbled steaks, crisp, green spinach and bricks of halloumi cheese. Hell, throw some kale in there.

But of course we live in the North, a region known for the frequent divergence between dreams and reality. Those steaks are way beyond our budget and the spinach is rapidly liquefying in the bag.

For many of us, the price of fancy food remains merely an annoyance. In the communities, and for the North’s urban poor, prices are creating a food security situation reaching crisis proportions. This is most glaring in Nunavut, where the food crisis has been widely reported. Fresh produce is especially scarce and expensive, when it’s even available in a state that doesn’t resemble compost.

But the NWT has the second-worst food security environment in the country, according to a 2012 study by researchers at the University of Toronto. One in five NWT households is food insecure (nearly double the national rate), and more than 31 percent of the territory’s children aren’t getting enough to eat.

All this is why the federal government is planning to overhaul its food subsidy system yet again. The Nutrition North Canada advisory board, which includes former NWT premier Nellie Cournoyea, will meet publicly in Iqaluit later this month. One of the changes coming is that retailers will have to publicly reveal their profit margins. That’s bound to be politically satisfying for a lot of people, particularly the legion of vocal critics of the Northwest Company, which runs Northmart and Northern Stores and receives more than half of all shipping subsidies doled out by Nutrition North. They may be disappointed though, because grocery store margins are notoriously thin. (Although Northwest Company CEO Edward Kennedy recently told CBC his company clears around four or five percent.) That means there’s little room for retailers to cut prices and stay solvent.

Meanwhile, even Northern towns that are connected to the highway system are dealing with high food costs. Yellowknife and Whitehorse both saw retail food prices grow faster than the national average last year.

While both capitals enjoy the benefit of trucked food, they still have more in common with the communities than with southern cities. Small communities generally have an unbreakable duopoly between two stores, most often the Northern and the Co-op. In Whitehorse and Yellowknife, Loblaw-owned entities—including the laughably-named Your Independent Grocer—dominate, with a few smaller players (and in Yellowknife a Co-op) in the mix. With small markets and astronomical start-up costs, competition is unlikely to help force down prices any time soon.

Policies full of empty calories

It stands to both reason and morality that the focus of a federal food subsidy program would be on fly-in communities in the territories and the provincial North. What’s less clear is whether the university-educated adults behind Nutrition North actually believe the $68 million per year Ottawa puts into the program could do anything besides take the worst of the sting out of high food prices.

But Ottawa is incapable or unwilling to approach these issues with anything resembling a coherent strategy. The Northern Strategy, which is gathering dust anyway, was more about branding the Harper government as Tough On Sovereignty than any real attempt at, you know, doing anything.

Any solution to the North’s food security crisis has to expand beyond simply throwing a wad of cash at retailers to bring down prices. Food costs are subject to a whole web of factors: shipping costs, electricity and labour costs at point of sale, distance from markets, worldwide food demand and even global weather patterns.

Similarly, the cost of living North of 60 feeds off itself: housing scarcity drives up rents which drives up wages. Same goes for utility costs. And as Jim Bell has written about Nunavut, Northern food insecurity is as much a poverty crisis as it is a food crisis. As long as Nutrition North ignores those truths, it will remain the policy equivalent of empty calories.