Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

How To Feed Canada’s Arctic, The Land Without Farms Or Roads

For over 50 years, Canada has struggled to make food affordable in remote Arctic communities. Recent subsidy changes have left many northerners out in the cold.

A blue road sign reads,

Photo: Sarah Gordon

This sign, which stands alongside the Tulita-Wrigley ice road in the Northwest Territories, Canada, gives an example of the distances traveled over winter roads to deliver groceries and supplies to remote Arctic communities.

By Boat, Plane Or Ice Road, Feeding The Arctic

Residents of rural communities in northern Canada rely on federal subsidies to make fresh, healthy food affordable in their local stores. Since late 2010, the federal government has been phasing out its old subsidy program, called Food Mail, and replacing it with a new one called Nutrition North.

Nutrition North has promised to decrease the subsidies on unhealthy foods, and to make healthy foods more affordable.

Northern residents, however, are finding that the new subsidy system is actually making almost everything more expensive. Small food-based businesses like hotels and restaurants are struggling to stay afloat, and individuals face a decrease in options and availability for healthy perishable foods.

How To Eat Well In A Region Without Agriculture

The average Earth Eats reader is concerned with eating healthfully, locally, and sustainably.

For the residents of Canada’s remote north, however, getting access to basic supermarket produce is challenge enough. The harsh climate and permafrost make local farming difficult, if not impossible, and extremely expensive. Compounding this problem, dozens of communities are not accessible by all-weather roads, and instead rely on short-term seasonal ice roads, sealift deliveries, and air freight to supply their local stores.

As a result, fresh produce, dairy, and meat are both expensive and, often, of poor quality. Produce, in particular, is easily damaged during the rough journey to these remote communities, but even non-perishable items are excruciatingly expensive due to the high cost of shipping.

It’s A Social Justice Issue

The majority of the population of northern Canada’s remote communities are Aboriginal: they are registered First Nations, Metis, or Inuit. Their communities face overwhelming unemployment and poverty, juxtaposed against a cost of living that is 33 percent higher than the national average.

Canada’s Aboriginal population faces an overwhelming number of distinct social challenges. Aboriginal children are the poorest in Canada, and the suicide rate among northern Inuit is 4-5 times Canada’s national average, a disproportionate number of which are youth suicides.

With this in mind, the availability of healthy food in the north is not just an issue of food distribution, it’s an issue of social justice. Impoverished children need access to healthy food. And while the factors leading to suicides are complex, some experts attribute the Inuit epidemic as stemming from Inuit youth’s inability to see a future in which the challenges of daily life, like supporting the basic needs of a family, feel possible.

The Case Of The $200 Turkey

Since the 1960s, Canadian government subsidies have helped to control the cost of distributing food to northern communities in order to make food more affordable for northern residents.

The Food Mail program, which started in 1969, subsidized the cost of shipping food through Canada Post from more populous, urban centers to more remote, rural communities.  Individuals and small businesses (like restaurants or hotels) based in remote communities could also make personal orders from stores in more populated areas in order to save money, satisfy special dietary requirements, or simply to have access to a wider variety of foods than they could get in their local stores.

Despite the best intentions of the subsidy program, few people were satisfied by Food Mail. It cost the federal government approximately $50 million every year, and food prices in the arctic remained exorbitant. In 2009, a frozen turkey retailed for $200 Cdn in the Nunavut community of Arctic Bay, and two litres (or half a gallon) of milk cost $8.99 in Talyoak. A food basket that would cost $239 in the Northwest Territories capital of Yellowknife would cost $426 and $483 in the rural communities of Deline and Colville Lake, respectively

As a result of widespread dissatisfaction with this subsidy program, Canada’s current government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative party, promised a complete overhaul of Food Mail. Starting in early 2011, Food Mail was phased out and replaced by a new program called Nutrition North.

Get Your Apples, Get Your Diapers

Nutrition North differs from Food Mail in significant ways:

  • Nutrition North subsidizes retailers, while Food Mail subsidized shippers. Under Nutrition North, retailers are expected to negotiate their own rates with shippers. Theoretically, competition between shippers should help to keep  prices low.
  • Food Mail subsidized shipping of food and essential non-food items (like toothpaste and diapers) at a flat rate. Nutrition North subsidizes healthy, perishable food at a higher rate than non-perishable or unhealthy food. Essential non-food items are now subsidized only in communities not served by alternate delivery methods such as the existing sealift (annual barge deliveries of essential items).
  • Personal orders will continue to be subsidized, but decreases in prices from local retailers should make them less necessary for people without special dietary requirements.

The Reality Fails The Promise

Nutrition North’s achievements in making healthy food more affordable have fallen far short of expectations. In many cases, food prices have actually increased, either because retailers have been unable to handle the program’s administrative requirements, or because communities served by only a single airline have been unable to negotiate affordable shipping costs.

Studies assessing the difference between food prices under Food Mail and those under the newly-implemented Nutrition North have yet to be released. But anecdotal evidence shows that the savings on healthy food have been minor. In Old Crow, Yukon customers save a mere sixty cents on a $12 bag of apples, and in Arctic Bay, a shipping price increase from $0.80/kg to $13.23/kg on essential supplies has been passed on to customers.

Grocers in Yellowknife, which previously had handled personal orders from much of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, opted out of the program, claiming that they lacked the capacity to handle the paperwork it required.

Yukon MP Ryan Leef is challenging his own Conservative party to improve the program, claiming that costs of living in the Yukon fly-in community of Old Crow are unreasonable, especially in light of the poor quality of food available.

Read more:

  • Yukon MP To Seek Nutrition North Changes (CBC.ca)
  • The High Cost Of Nourishing The North (The Toronto Star)
  • $200 Turkey Sparks Debate On Arctic Food Prices (CBC.ca)
  • Yellowknife Grocers Opt Out Of Nutrition North (CBC.ca)
Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon has been interested in food ethics since she was 15, learned about industrial slaughter, and launched into 10 years of vegetarianism. These days, she strives to be a conscientious omnivore. Now a PhD candidate in folklore, her research has caused her to spend a lot of time in the remote Canadian sub-arctic, where the lake trout (sustainably harvested) tastes amazing.

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