Nutrition North stumbling out of the starting line

The Yukon's only community to be a part of the federal Nutrition North program is unhappy with it.

The Yukon’s only community to be a part of the federal Nutrition North program is unhappy with it.

Formerly the Food Mail program, Ottawa changed the rules on April 1 to make healthier foods more accessible and affordable in remote northern communities.

But that hasn’t happened, say Old Crow residents.

Produce prices have only been nominally reduced, and, after being shipped from Winnipeg, they are rotting quickly on the shelves, said Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Norma Kassi.

Worst of all, costs to ship food into the community have become unaffordable, she added.

“It’s tripled in cost,” she said. “We do have VGFN beneficiary rates with freight, but still, people in Old Crow can’t afford to bring in food all the time like that.”

A recent shipment of one box of meat and two boxes of vegetables showed an extra charge of $43 just for fuel, said Kassi.

The prices in the community’s Northern Store had Yukon’s member of Parliament Ryan Leef taking notes and photos during his visit in early July. Those photos included $40 bags of flour, he said.

The fruits and vegetables, which are a major focus for the new program, were very obviously “not in good shape,” he added.

“Chief Kassi and council brought me through the store specifically to say, ‘Look what we pay and look what we get’, and they certainly made their point,” said Leef.

The reason the Nutrition North program supplanted the Food Mail program was to subsidize the commercial entities, like the stores and suppliers, rather than the transportation.

And, when no one in Whitehorse stood up to take the subsidy and act as Old Crow’s supplier, Air North established a distributor to work with the community’s only grocery store to do the job, both Kassi and Stephen Van Dine confirmed.

Van Dine is the federal director general for devolution and territorial relations, the branch of Aboriginal Affairs that manages the Nutrition North program.

Old Crow’s situation was considered at the initial implementation of the program, he said, adding there is an advisory board to connect ideas on the ground with John Duncan, the aboriginal affairs minister in Ottawa.

During the First Nations’ general assembly earlier this month, a resolution specific to subsidizing freight costs for elders was passed.

“It’s still early days,” said Van Dine. “And I’d be very interested to talk with the chief and see the resolution firsthand to see what we could do to see whether or not it can be reaching the intent and outcomes we are looking for.”

But the answer isn’t necessarily to look back at the Food Mail program and transportation subsidies, said Leef.

“For Old Crow, we just need to iron out some bumps and I think we can do that without rewriting the whole program,” he said. “It does have potential to work well, it does have a great theory behind it.”

Leef will be meeting with the Vuntut Gwitchin chief and council before returning to Ottawa to brief the northern caucus on Old Crow’s concerns and suggestions in early September, he added.

In the meantime, Old Crow residents are putting their heads together.

“We have to be very creative in our strategies in how to bring costs down in every way here,” said Kassi. “Young mothers, single parents just can’t afford to live. Caribou have been bypassing Old Crow for a few years now. And, of course, this year again we didn’t get that much salmon at all. So it’s tough all the way around.”

The community is looking at building a long-term storage facility for dry goods, farming animals, perhaps chickens, and expanding the greenhouses and open gardens in the fly-in village.

“We do, in the end, have to really look at all the options, as a people, to take care of ourselves. But we don’t want to take the responsibility away from the federal government either. It’s their responsibility to make sure all the communities have access to healthy living, healthy foods and nutritious foods. And right now, the problem is with the federal government,” said Kassi.

“The federal government needs to revisit this program. It’s not working right now. It’s absolutely high cost and the citizens are not benefitting.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at roxannes@yukon-news.com