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Fix Broken Subsidies And Make Food Affordable For First Nations

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attawapiskat store
Prices are displayed for oranges at a store in Atawapiskat, Ontario. The prices shown have been reduced by the Northern supplement. (Photo: REUTERS/Frank Gunn/Pool)

The first comprehensive study to analyze the effect of high food prices in northern Ontario communities suggests First Nations people living in remote northern Ontario communities need to spend more than half their income on food to meet basic nutritional needs. The report looked at food costs on three northern Ontario reservations -- Moose Factory, Fort Albany and Attawapiskat -- which are located in the Mushkegowuk territory, along the James Bay Coast.

The report released by Food Secure Canada, included contributions from researchers from Dalhousie University, the University of Waterloo, Lakehead University and Mount Saint Vincent University.

The researchers took a list of 67 basic food items such as bread, ground beef and peanut butter, which are all part of Health Canada's National Nutritious Food Basket (NNFB) that represents a healthy diet, and found that the average monthly cost for a family of four to purchase the list of items in the northern communities is around $1,900. In Toronto, those same items would only cost around $850 a month.

On-reserve households in Fort Albany must spend at least 50 per cent of their median monthly income just to buy food for a basic nutritious diet.

High food prices detailed in the report included $20 per pound of ground beef and almost $9 for three pounds of apples in Moose Factory. Also, nearly $11 for a bag of flour in Fort Albany. They also found that basic items we all take for granted such as cabbage and chicken drumsticks can't be found in any of these communities.

The researchers found that on-reserve households in Fort Albany must spend at least 50 per cent of their median monthly income just to buy food for a basic nutritious diet. The report said a "reasonable assumption" would suggest that Moose Factory and Attawapiskat must do so as well.

High food prices are nothing new to anyone in northern Canada. A 2014 report from the auditor general found the sky-high food prices can be attributed to transportation costs, a lack of competition and unreliable weather. These high costs force families to make difficult choices between food, hydro, gas for vehicles, basic costs of living, supporting clothing and needs of their children and unexpected bills or costs.

attawapiskat
Food Secure Canada the federal government's Nutrition North Canada program isn't helping belay costs for Attawapiskat families as much as it should be. (Photo: CP)

"The subsidy, as we experience it in Fort Albany, has not made it possible for the average family to eat well, let alone afford basic things like diapers and toilet paper," said Gigi Veeraraghavan, a community health worker and one of the report authors.

According to the report's authors, the subsidy program that is aimed at fixing the problem is not working. The Nutrition North Canada (NNC) program has been widely criticized as ineffective. Fort Albany and Attawapiskat are already receiving full subsidies through the NNC program.

The federal government said that it will be expanding the NNC program to an additional 37 northern communities.

Perhaps some light could be shed on how so much money can produce so little and still leave communities in despair.

Food Secure Canada's executive director Diana Bronson said in an interview, "The program is meant to make fresh food available at affordable prices. I think what we've seen at the communities we've studied is it's not effective at doing that."

Food Secure Canada has called on both the federal and provincial governments to make access to nutritionally adequate and culturally appropriate food a basic human right in Canada.

Some of us have said many times before that many First Nation programs are broken and ineffective. We are still waiting for action on safe water, housing and a list of other things which have been promised time and time again. Reviews of programs are one way to delay taking action, yet if done properly and involving the First Nation communities, perhaps some light could be shed on how so much money can produce so little and still leave communities in despair.

I continue to urge that the role and compensation of consultants and "experts" be a key area for review -- and change.

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