Edna Kyikavichik is praying caribou pass through Old Crow this spring.
A good cache of caribou meat means she won’t have to rely on the Northern Store for food.
Last week, the single mother of three spent $200 at the community’s only grocery store and walked out with only two paper bags of food.
“We’re having a hard time getting by,” she said.
Kyikavichik spends more than $1,000 a month of her part-time salary feeding her family.
A new government program introduced April 1 was supposed to make healthy foods more affordable for people living in remote Northern communities.
But for Kyikavichik, who doesn’t have a credit card and can’t order food from Whitehorse, it hasn’t changed a thing.
She was looking forward to cheaper prices at the community’s only grocery store.
But prices there are still “crazy,” she said.
A two-litre carton of milk at the Northern Store two weeks ago was selling for $8.39. A bag of apples cost $17.39
And that was on sale.
Before the Nutrition North program was introduced the milk cost $8.99 and the apples cost $17.89
A large yellow sign boasted the paltry savings to customers.
It’s insulting, say Old Crow residents.
“We expected a much larger degree of savings at the store,” said Yukon MLA Darius Elias.
Elias and former Yukon MP Larry Bagnell lobbied hard to stop Indian and Northern Affairs from replacing its Food Mail program with the Nutrition North program.
The new program is intended to curb inefficiencies that arose from sending food via Canada Post to fly-in communities in the North.
Rather than subsidize personal orders from grocers down South, Nutrition North has shifted all its subsidies to retailers in fly-in communities.
It’s no secret that northern retailers were lobbying hard for this new program, said Elias.
Since introducing the program last month, the Northern Store in Old Crow has purchased a row of brand new glassed-in fridges.
But recently, many of the fridge shelves were half-empty.
“It’s been three or four days since we got in a shipment of veggies,” said Northern Store employee Harlan Nukon.
That day the only vegetables in the freezer included garlic cloves, a few rusty heads of lettuce, some carrots and a processed package of diced potatoes.
“Yesterday we only got in tobacco and a box of chocolate bars and chips,” said Nukon.
“I don’t think that’s very healthy.”
When vegetables do make it to the store they’re often half rotten, said Vuntut Gwitchin community health representative Marion Schafer.
And often the milk is sour.
That’s because food is being shipped from the Northern Store’s head office in Winnipeg, not Whitehorse.
She’d like to the see the store carry more eggs, better quality meat and produce and healthy fruit juices.
“The only reason the Northern Store had its contract renewed in Old Crow is because they said they’d look at selling more healthy foods,” said Schafer.
“That hasn’t happened and that was a few years ago.”
Like many residents in Old Crow, Schafer orders the bulk of her food from Whitehorse because the selection and quality of food surpasses what she can find in the town’s only grocery store.
But when the Food Mail program was scrapped March 31st, costs to ship food from Whitehorse to Old Crow skyrocketed.
Catherine Marangu holds a bill from a food order dated March 29th. Her shipping costs were $140. To ship the exact same food order three days later would cost $418, said the Vuntut Gwitchin financial officer.
“People are going to the airport to pick up their food and they’re in shock,” said Marangu.
Costs to ship nutritious food like milk, vegetables and fruits have increased to $1.53 per kilogram from $.80 per kilogram.
For other food items, like pasta and crackers as well as diapers, detergents and garbage bags, the price has changed to $2.38 per kilogram from $2.15 per kilogram.
And that doesn’t include the fuel surcharges that are tacked on afterwards.
“The way that the program was presented to us, it turned out completely different,” she said.
“We thought it would be more efficient and much cheaper.”
Shipping costs have increased so much that in some cases the freight costs as much as the food itself.
Dick Mahoney picked up a food order from the Old Crow airport last week.
His grocery bill was $102.84. The freight fees came out to $102.
It’s almost laughable, said Mahoney. The same order of vegetables and fruits two months ago would have cost him roughly $50.
“This is a big hit,” he said. “This substantially increases the cost of living here.”
But it could have been worse.
Old Crow residents almost lost out on personal food orders altogether.
Nutrition North relies on retailers in the South willing to take on the added headache of sorting fruits and vegetables from items like crackers and cookies and submitting audits and financial statements to Indian and Northern Affairs on a regular basis to be eligible for the subsidy.
None of the grocery stores in Whitehorse wanted to take on the extra work.
So Air North stepped in.
The airline formed AN Food Distributors to satisfy Nutrition North’s subsidy regulations.
But with Indian and Northern Affairs shouldering less of the subsidy costs and refusing to cover fuel surcharges, freight prices doubled.
Air North isn’t making any money from the new arrangement, said president Joe Sparling.
The real culprit is the fuel surcharges.
With residents now having to pay fuel surcharges, they’re seeing a 30 to 35 per cent price increase slapped onto every food order.
“It’s significant,” said Sparling.
The airline has already noticed that the volume of food shipments have been reduced to half of what they normally are since the new program came in.
Either people are buying their food at the Northern Store or they’re not shipping because they’re not yet familiar with the new program, said Sparling.
“We don’t know yet,” he said.
Elias wonders why Indian and Northern Affairs didn’t just leave the program as it was.
It cost the federal government about $330,000 a year in subsidies to run the Food Mail program in Old Crow.
It’s a drop in the bucket considering the government spends about $60 million a year to run the program throughout the North, he said.
The government is still budgeting to spend the same amount this year, even though subsidy rates for shipping have been slashed.
“It doesn’t add up,” said Elias.
“They’re doing massive overhauls across the North because of inefficiencies that happened out East (in Northern Quebec).”
The Nutrition North program was pushed by northerners themselves, said Indian and Northern Affairs officials.
“In consultations we did across the North people said they wanted a market-driven model,” said media spokesperson Margot Geduld.
“The retail subsidy encourages retailers to deliver nutritious food at a fair price.”
But residents aren’t convinced the new program will benefit them in the long run.
Schafer has already seen more people shopping at the Northern Store now that the price difference between shipping food up and buying it at the store is almost negligible.
“It’s affecting people here already,” said Schafer.
“It’s going to affect single parents and fixed income people the most – it’ll be hard.”
Vivian Belik is a freelance writer based in the Yukon.