Nutrition North needs major overhaul, say MLAs

Nutrition North isn't working, say a group of five politicians from the Yukon, N.W.T.

Nutrition North isn’t working, say a group of five politicians from the Yukon, N.W.T., Nunavut, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador.

This week the group, which includes Vuntut Gwitchin MLA Darius Elias, sent a letter with their concerns to federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development John Duncan.

It has been 10 months since the food mail program, which helped to pay for the transportation of goods to remote communities, was changed to Nutrition North. Now the subsidies are provided to the retailers instead.

Not only is the new program not working, the group said it’s now costing people more to get healthy food and necessities than it did before.

“The new program is a step backwards,” said N.W.T. MLA Norman Yakeleya in a news release that accompanied a copy of the letter.

“My constituents are having to pay more than double to ensure a personal food order is shipped to our community,” said Elias in the letter.

A 50-kilogram shipment of perishable foods now costs $96, when it used to cost $40.75 under the old food mail program, he said.

The main problem is that the remote communities are now at the mercy of only one or a few stores, whereas before residents could shop around a little bit more for the food they’d want, the letter said.

In Old Crow, shopping at the only store is a last resort, said resident Megan Williams.

“You’re lucky to be able to get anything that’s good quality in the store,” she said. “So you end up paying quite a bit for something that’s substandard.

“People are not able to access healthy foods. They’re accessing healthy foods less now than in the past.”

But Williams is luckier than a lot of her neighbours. She has a credit card so she is able to keep an account with the Superstore in Whitehorse, which then co-ordinates her orders with Air North’s freight system.

Others in the community send money to friends and family in Whitehorse who then shop for them and pass the groceries on to Air North.

For dry goods, like cereals and baking ingredients, Williams teams up with others in the community to top Air North’s 100-pound freight discount.

“We’re not even touching Nutrition North,” she said. “We just use Air North’s freight rates. It’s still a cost but it’s still less than it would be if we used Nutrition North.”

Under the old food mail program, Williams and others in the community used to order fresh and organic produce baskets from Suat Tuzlak’s Alpine Bakery in Whitehorse.

But Tuzlak doesn’t get those orders anymore.

“It was something I really took pleasure and pride in,” he said. “I feel sorry for them because in a place like Old Crow it’s hard to get good food.”

Tuzlak was even called on for big orders, like bread for community events, he said.

But that doesn’t happen anymore either.

In their letter to federal officials, Elias and his counterparts across the North included precise suggestions.

In the letter, Ron Elliott, MLA for Quttiktuq in Nunavut, emphasized the importance of ensuring proper “oversight, audit and enforcement mechanisms in relation to the transparency of retail food pricing and the application of subsides” under the program.

There is also the need to include more retailers in the eligibility list and “improve access to country foods,” he said.

The real solution would be to subsidize transportation of personal orders again, with exact costs per kilogram for the different levels of designated food, Elias suggested in the letter.

Federal politicians have not yet responded to the letter.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at