Food Mail overhauls worry Bagnell

Old Crow residents often shop for groceries while in Whitehorse, and it's not hard to see why.

Old Crow residents often shop for groceries while in Whitehorse, and it’s not hard to see why.

Their fly-in community only has one grocery store, and its selection of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats is both limited and pricey by Whitehorse standards.

To wit: last year one resident reported that four oranges cost her nearly $12.

So Old Crow residents will fill up on groceries while in Whitehorse. Thanks to the federal Food Mail program, they can then drop-off their pickings at Air North’s freight counter to have them shipped to Old Crow at a subsidized rate.

But a major overhaul of the program may prevent Old Crow residents from shopping this way, warns MP Larry Bagnell.

“It doesn’t seem like the people in Old Crow are going to be very happy about it,” he said.

Food Mail is currently used to fly everything from to spinach to snowmobile parts to remote northern communities. The bulk of the program’s $60-million annual cost goes towards flying goods to retailers in Nunavut, a territory that’s entirely cut-off from Canada’s road network. Old Crow is Yukon’s only eligible community.

An audit of the program found it to be rife with inefficiencies. For example, food destined for Baffin Island must pass through Val d’Or, Quebec, rather than being flown directly from Montreal or Ottawa. The result: wasted money and spoiled food.

So Ottawa is replacing Food Mail with a new program called Nutrition North Canada by next April. The new program will cut out the middleman – Canada Post – and be doled out as a direct subsidy to northern retailers.

These companies ought to be able to transport goods more efficiently than government, Ottawa reasons. And that in turn should mean fresher, cheaper food for remote northern communities.

That’s assuming that northern retailers will pass savings along to consumers. Bagnell isn’t so sure this will happen.

Northern consumers have long grumbled about price-gouging in remote communities. Retailers respond that they have high overheads – freight, electricity and fuel bills – and that these costs need to be paid through higher grocery prices.

But suspicions linger because of the opacity of the Food Mail program. Consumers don’t know the true cost of selling food in remote locations, or how much of the subsidy is being passed along to them.

To fix this, it was proposed during the lead-up to reforms that retailers print on receipts how much Food Mail has subsidized each item.

But that’s no longer in the plans, officials told Bagnell during a recent parliamentary committee meeting. Instead, Ottawa will inspect the waybills and invoices of northern retailers to ensure the subsidy is being passed along – something that’s currently not done – as well as continue spot checks of prices at the till.

Then there’s the matter of making personal orders from Whitehorse.

Because the new program sends money directly to retailers, as of April, it appears as if Old Crow residents won’t be able to ship food from the Air North freight office.

Jamie Tibbetts, a senior staffer with Northern Affairs, told a parliamentary committee on June 15 that Old Crow residents “may start to shift towards buying products in their communities, and getting the subsidies at the store locally, as opposed to having to go remote to get it.”

This leaves Bagnell wondering how Ottawa residents would feel if the government told them which grocery stores to shop at. To complicate matters, there are two types of personal orders that may be made through Food Mail. Most commonly, remote residents will fax a shopping list to eligible southern retailers, along with a credit card number, and the food will be shipped to their community at a discounted rate. This type of personal order will remain in place under the new program.

Bagnell left the parliamentary committee with the impression that Old Crow residents will likewise be able to shop at eligible retailers in Whitehorse, and that the stores, if they choose to participate, would ship the groceries to Old Crow.

But this strikes Bagnell as less efficient than the current way of doing things, and he worries that not all Whitehorse grocers will register for the new program, leaving less choice for Old Crow shoppers.

Another, broader problem that Food Mail reforms leave unaddressed is how personal orders may only be made by residents who have a credit card and access to a fax machine. That puts personal orders out of reach for the poorest residents, said Bagnell.

An advisory committee that will oversee the new program is being chaired by Elizabeth Copland, a resident of Arviat, Nunavut. Bagnell hopes that an Old Crow resident will be appointed to the committee, and that the community’s concerns will result in some tweaks to the new program before April.

Contact John Thompson at