Old Crow residents can expect to pay less for fresh fruit and vegetables, and more for bacon and ice-cream, by April of next year.
That’s the expiry date for Canada’s Food Mail program, which subsidizes the cost of shipping certain goods to remote communities across Canada’s North.
Following a critical audit, Ottawa will phase out Food Mail over the next 10 months and replace it with a new program called Nutrition North Canada.
The first changes will occur in October, when Ottawa will alter the list of items eligible for the subsidy. Gone from the subsidy list will be pumpkins – primarily flown up for jack-o-lanterns, rather than food -Â along with bacon, ice-cream, bottled water and other items deemed to lack nutritional merit.
And when the new program kicks in next year, fresh fruit, vegetables and meats will receive a higher subsidy than other, less nutritious items, like Pilot biscuits.
Besides offsetting the high cost of food in remote communities, Food Mail is also used to subsidize the cost of shipping shampoo, deodorant and even snowmobile parts.
The biggest fear of Old Crow residents during the lead-up to the Food Mail overhaul was that reforms would end their ability to make personal orders: that is, ordering groceries in Whitehorse that are shipped at subsidized rates through Air North cargo.
This provides an alternative to shopping at the community’s only grocer, the Northern Store, which itself receives Food Mail discounts on shipping certain items.
Fear not, said Chuck Strahl, minister of Northern Affairs, when he announced the changes on May 21 in Iqaluit. Personal orders are here to stay.
Even so, questions remain, said Darius Elias, Old Crow’s MLA. He wonders whether customers making personal orders will have to pay any differently than they now do. If residents are expected to mail off receipts to Ottawa and wait for a cheque, “that’s not going to be well received in my community,” he said.
Yukon MP Larry Bagnell has questions, too. He too had pushed to protect personal orders and “it’s good that they listened to us,” he said.
Canada Post administered the Food Mail program, but Ottawa is cutting out the middleman. The new subsidy will be directly handled by Northern Affairs to northern retailers.
Strahl has promised the new program will be “transparent” to ensure that the subsidy is passed on to consumers. Bagnell wants to know how exactly this will be done.
“How do we know they are going to pass it along to the consumers, that they’re going to get lower prices for healthy foods?” he asked.
The answer, according to a document prepared by Northern Affairs, is that stores will be expected to show the subsidy amount on receipts. Currently it remains a mystery to customers in Old Crow how much items would be without the existing subsidy.
Both Elias and Bagnell emphasized the importance of allowing Old Crow customers to shop in Whitehorse.
“We’ve only got one store in Old Crow,” said Elias, “and many of my constituents consider the food being sold there to be substandard. Especially in the winter months, the fruit and vegetables that come off the plane, they’re not of the best quality.”
Or, as Bagnell put it, “If you told the people in Ottawa, or Whitehorse, you’re only allowed to go to one grocery store that has a small selection, and we’re going to choose which store, people would be a little ticked.”
Strahl vowed to bring the program’s budget up to $60 million annually. Bagnell noted that, due to persistent cost overruns, the program actually cost $66,200,000 last fiscal year, “so I don’t think $60 million is bringing it up.”
Most of that money is spent shipping goods to the Eastern Arctic. Only a tiny fraction goes towards sending goods to Old Crow.
Some of Food Mail’s biggest problems remain unsolved, said Bagnell. Chief among them: the neediest residents in remote communities are unable to take advantage of placing personal orders, because doing so requires owning a credit card.
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