Feds lay out issues Northerners have with Nutrition North in new report

Northerners feel the Nutrition North food subsidy fails to make healthy food affordable and the subsidy is not helping the people who need it most, a new report from Indigenous and Northern Affairs suggests.

The 34-page report, published Friday, is the result of a yearlong series of 18 community visits across the North to gather feedback on the six-year-old program.

Nutrition North is a retail subsidy program for perishable food in Northern and Indigenous communities with limited access to year-round infrastructure.

The community meetings came as a result of a 2014 review of the program from the federal auditor general.

The report suggests people are unhappy with the price of food generally and many feel things are worse for people on a fixed income, who can't afford fresh food even after the subsidy is applied.

"Northerners feel that everything in the North is expensive, with a number of participants stating that, as Southerners, it is difficult to understand those struggles," the report states.

"Even with the subsidy provided through Nutrition North, for which they generally expressed an appreciation, many families are not able to afford healthy food," it said.

With dozens of individual suggestions on how to fix the maligned subsidy program, finding a clear solution may be difficult.

Most ideas in the report revolve around increasing transparency, increasing subsidies for traditional/country food and taking steps to ensure food is fresh when it reaches the North. A number of people also noted the costs for airline companies flying north.

'Complete change' necessary

But the report does not list solutions the federal government may plan to take and there isn't a timeline for reforming the subsidy program. 

"I know it's urgent," Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett said Monday. 

"We're going to go over what we've heard, then we're going to develop the complete change that is necessary," she said. "Certainly everywhere I've been the themes of access to country food and for hunters and fishermen is very real."

Health Canada is working with Indigenous and Northern Affairs to review the community report. It will then develop options for updating the program and ensuring its long-term sustainability, spokeswoman Maryse Durette wrote in a email. 

She also noted the 2016 federal budget pledged $64.5 million over five years beginning in 2016-17 and $13.8-million per year after that to expand Nutrition North to all isolated Northern communities. 

Read the full report here.