Feds propose changes to food subsidy

Brenda Frost paid nearly $12 for four oranges. She's a single mom raising two teenagers in Old Crow. Eating in Yukon's only fly-in community is nearly three times as expensive as it is in Whitehorse.

Brenda Frost paid nearly $12 for four oranges.

She’s a single mom raising two teenagers in Old Crow.

Eating in Yukon’s only fly-in community is nearly three times as expensive as it is in Whitehorse.

A 22-pound bag flour costs less than $10 in Whitehorse. It’s about four times as much in Old Crow, said Frost.

A four-litre jug of homogenized milk costs $15.69. In Whitehorse it’s $4.75.

A loaf of whole-wheat bread costs $4.99. In Whitehorse it’s $2.44.

A dozen eggs costs $4.89. In Whitehorse it’s $2.24.

A basket of healthy food that would feed a family of four for a week in Old Crow cost $496 in 2008, the federal government estimates. The same food cost $207 in Whitehorse.

Frost has spent nearly $200 on two bags of groceries at the Northern Store.

“That’s enough for two or three days,” said Frost.

So, when she can, Frost saves money by ordering food from Whitehorse.

Grocers will take an order, and the food is flown up. The freight cost is subsidized by Ottawa.

But this could end, if the recommendation of a recent report that calls for sweeping changes to the food-mail program is adopted.

Scrap personal orders, the report suggests.

Why? Because handling small orders is more expensive than simply shipping to the Northern Store. Personal orders are also unpopular with northern retailers who lose out on business.

And such orders are out of reach of the neediest residents.

To make a personal shipment, you need a credit card, access to the internet, or a fax machine, and a vehicle to pick up the shipment at the airport.

That’s no problem for Frost, who works at the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation’s office. But poor residents lack such resources.

What’s more, personal food orders may result in higher food costs for everyone else. At least, that’s what northern retailers maintain.

Food mail subsidizes Northern Store’s freight costs, too. But Old Crow’s store pays high heating bills and rent to operate in the community.

Yet, with personal orders, they must compete with Whitehorse retailers with lower overheads.

This is unfair, retailers told the report’s author.

And it results in pricier food. Northern needs to pay its fixed costs somehow. If it sells less food, prices must go up.

“Eliminating personal orders may allow northern retailers to increase their buying power and capacity to purchase more foods in bulk at lower prices. This could result in lower food prices for northern consumers, especially those who cannot take advantage of personal orders,” according to the report.

It also recommends a “moderate” increase to air subsidy rates. This should further lower food prices paid at Old Crow’s store, assuming the subsidy is passed along to consumers.

Not everyone buys this. Some believe the store gouges residents because there’s no local competition.

Frost doesn’t. She recalls when Super A was in Old Crow. Prices were similar then, she said.

But give her an option to save money and she’ll take it.

Old Crow’s residents should be able to decide where they shop, said Darius Elias, MLA for Vuntut Gwitchin.

Ottawa should keep subsidizing personal shipments, he said in a motion tabled in the legislature Wednesday

“It’s difficult enough to live in Old Crow and support a family,” said Elias.

Frost agrees. Her two teens “eat a lot,” she said.

“It makes a huge difference. Things are so expensive. Of course it’s important to us.”

Personal orders require planning. So Frost still shops at Northern for short-notice purchases.

“Sometimes you don’t have a choice. If you need a jug of milk today for your kid’s cereal tomorrow morning, then you go to the store and buy it,” she said.

Not all subsidized food is healthy.

Butter, bacon, ice cream and Kraft Dinner are all subsidized under the program.

So is bottled water and whole pumpkins shipped up for Halloween.

This would end.

But some unhealthy frozen foods would remain subsidized, such as battered fish sticks and breaded chicken strips.

So would beef jerky.

“Stakeholders expressed considerable concern about the exclusion of these foods from the program, especially in view of the lack of cooking skills,” the report states.

Fishing equipment, diapers and hygiene products would be added to the program.

Food-mail programs offset the cost of food in 135 northern communities. Old Crow only makes up .7 per cent of the program’s total volume. More than half of all food mail is bound for Nunavut.

Food-mail’s budget has ballooned in the past decade, to an anticipated $60 million in 2008-09 from $36 million in 2004-05.

It is believed this prompted the review.

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