07/30/2013 12:25 EDT | Updated 09/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Auditor-General To Examine Nutrition North Food Subsidy Program


Canada's auditor general has agreed to examine one of the North's most contentious issues — the $15 bag of apples, the $20 head of cabbage and the pork shoulder roast that costs nearly $25 a kilogram.

Michael Ferguson will examine the effectiveness of the Harper government's revamped subsidy program to bring down the high cost of food.

"I think it's great," Leesee Papatsie, who helped organize Nunavut-wide food price protests last summer, said Tuesday from Iqaluit.

"We don't know for sure if the subsidy is being passed on."

Food prices are a long-standing issue in the North.

Ottawa used to subsidize shipping costs in an effort to make food more affordable, but that began to change in 2011 under Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. The Conservatives switched the subsidy to retailers, who were expected to pass it on by cutting food costs for consumers. The Tories also tightened the list of eligible foods to emphasize fresh, healthy products.

But while the government says food prices are declining, many northerners wonder if the entire subsidy is reflected in consumer prices. Others say the list of foods eligible for the subsidy is too narrow

Papatsie said her grocery bills — about $600 a week for a family of six — haven't changed much.

"Some vegetables are definitely cheaper," she said. "Canned stuff is still expensive. Meat is still expensive."

Nunavut MLA Ron Elliott said the numbers don't add up.

Using price quotes from northern airlines, he figured the cost to fly food to a community such as Resolute is about $3.50 a kilogram. The Nutrition North subsidy on milk, eggs and vegetables there is $10.20 per kilogram.

"Anything that you can buy under $7 for one kilogram, you're getting it to the community for free," said Elliott. "They're actually getting paid to sell milk."

Meanwhile, he said, consumers in his community are paying $27 for a 1.1 kilogram pork shoulder roast.

"This shows the massive profits the stores are making."

That's why the audit was requested, said Dennis Bevington, one of six New Democrat MPs who joined with the three territorial legislatures to ask Michael Ferguson to look into the issue.

"I think the cost of living is at a crisis point across the North," he said. "We want to know if that program is delivering the performance that it should."

Bevington said the auditor general has also agreed to look at whether the program has enough money.

He said actual spending on the old Food Mail program was about $60 million. Nutrition North's budget is $54 million.

"Is it adequately funded to provide the absolute necessity of supporting people's food?" he asked.

"I think the jury's still out on it, but it's such an important program for northerners."

Spokeswoman Erica Meekes of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, which runs Nutrition North, said data collected from registered retailers' food prices in the government's standard northern food basket dropped an average of eight per cent between March 2011 and September 2012. Some prices, such as for two-litre jugs of milk, have dropped by as much as 27 per cent, she said.

"Our government is committed to continue to advance the interests of Canada's North," she said in an email. "We will work with the AG to get them the information they require for their review of the program and we look forward to their findings."

Last summer, people from across Nunavut rallied in front of their grocery stores to protest high food prices. More than 10,000 people — about one-third of Nunavut's population — joined a Facebook protest site called Feed My Family.

Research has supported their concerns.

Nunavut's territorial nutritionist has tabled a report in the territorial legislature that found nearly three-quarters of Inuit preschoolers live in food-insecure homes. Half of youths 11 to 15 years old sometimes go to bed hungry.

Two-thirds of Inuit parents also told a McGill University survey that they sometimes ran out of food and couldn't afford more.

Nunavut's larder of "country food'' — caribou, seals, fish and other animals — is only available to those who can afford snowmobiles, gas, rifles, ammunition and gear needed to travel safely to hunt. Those costs have been estimated at $150 a day.

Poverty and food security are at the centre of the Nunavut government's agenda. A food security coalition has been formed with representatives from six different government departments, as well as from Inuit organizations.

Ferguson said in a letter to Bevington his office expects to complete the audit by the fall of 2014.

A report released Tuesday and based on data from a Statistics Canada survey says almost one in eight families in the country have inadequate access to regular, healthy meals because of financial constraints.

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