Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Around the Arctic October 01, 2012 - 1:05 pm

Cheez Whiz on, diapers off new Nutrition North food subsidy list

"We added a few things back on what I call family-friendly products"

Nutrition North's new subsidized food list comes into effect Oct. 1. That means canned goods will no longer be subsidized, director general Stephen Van Dine said. (PHOTO BY SAMANTHA DAWSON)
Nutrition North's new subsidized food list comes into effect Oct. 1. That means canned goods will no longer be subsidized, director general Stephen Van Dine said. (PHOTO BY SAMANTHA DAWSON)

As of Oct. 1, Nutrition North Canada is dropping canned soup, canned vegetables, canned beans and other canned foods from its list of goods eligible for air freight subsidies.

Pasta, rice, coffee and tea will be dropped from that list, along with diapers, shampoo, soap, toilet paper, tissues, toothbrushes, toothpaste and feminine hygiene products.

“Those things fall off the list and they become those things that have a longer shelf-life and can be shipped by sealift,” said Stephen Van Dine, the general director of Nutrition North, in an Oct. 1 interview.

The change date of Oct. 1 list was determined last November so retailers would have 18 months from the time of the Nutrition North Canada program’s startup in 2010 to adjust to the food mail program replacement.

Now, the goal is to encourage northern retailers to transport items with a long shelf-life via sealift, or, in some places, haul them north on winter roads rather than by air.

The goals: to be “efficient and cost-effective” and put the price focus on healthier foods such as dairy and fresh produce.

“They were a part of the previous program, but they weren’t the focus,” Van Dine said.

But some items are staying on the eligible air-freight list after being reconsidered by Nutrition North’s advisory board.

“We added a few things back on what I call family-friendly products… things like cheese spreads, creams, sour cream, frozen yogurts and ice cream and side bacon,” Van Dine said.

What the board learned is that people buying food need a chance to take part in nutrition education programs such as the Government of Nunavut’s 10 new recipes campaign.

“We need to allow those programs to actually get out there and do their work and by removing some of those items today might be too much, too soon,” Va Dine said.

As a result, those foods remain on the list, but at the lowest level of subsidy. Frozen meals will also get a lower air cargo subsidy rate.

The subsidy rates vary according to the cost structure of each community.

“In some communities the subsidy rate is a little higher, in some cases it’s a little lower,” Van Dine said.

Country food packaged at federally inspected plants will still get air freight subsidies, he said. In addition, Nutrition North wants to involve some of the larger country food suppliers, he said.

As for wild country food caught by individual hunters, the two main airlines serving Nunavut, First Air and Canadian North, already offer discount cargo rates that amount to about $1.50 per kg.

The have been positive changes since the Nutrition North program replaced the Food Mail program in 2010, Van Dine said, because “we’re seeing higher consumption of nutritious and perishable foods across Nutrition North,” he said.

Retailers have noticed a 15 per cent increase in sales of dairy and produce.

And produce is fresher because it no longer needs to be shipped through the northern Quebec hub of Val d’Or.

“We’ve kind of eliminated those structural requirements,” Van Dine said.

And Van Dine said nutritious food costs have gone down as well: there’s been an eight per cent reduction in what NNC refers to as the “northern healthy food basket” which is based on a basket of mostly fresh produce, he said.

“What’s important about that number is that at the same time across Canada, food prices have actually been going up,” he said.

The program gets $60 million from Ottawa annually, with most of the money being spent on subsidies to Nunavut.

“The dollars are going further, they’re working harder and they’re achieving more,” Van Dine said.

But not everyone agrees.

Becky Sager Torretti, a resident of Kugluktuk and a member of the Feeding My Family Facebook group, says a lot of the dropped items are staples for Nunavummiut.

And, although the price of milk has dropped, “there aren’t a lot of milk drinkers up here.”

The trouble with Nutrition North is that the government puts a lot of trust in the retailers, she said, and “there’s no way to hold them accountable,” she said.

But Van Dine maintains that the savings are passed down to people who buy food at the grocery stores in the North.

“We have some checks and balances to make sure that retailers are submitting the information that proves that they are passing the subsidy on to customers,” he said.

There are periodic “compliance audits” done on Nutrition North suppliers that the program plans to post on its website.

After recent high-food-cost protests in Nunavut and on Parliament Hill, Van Dine said Nutrition North has contributed to “a larger conversation of the cost of living in the North.”

“I think those protests said a lot and did a lot about broader cost of living pressures,” he said, adding that Nutrition North Canada has awakened some pent-up concerns by northerners about the true cost of living,” he said.

For those who don’t like the new subsidy list, the bad news is that it won’t change any time soon. 

“We’re going to stick with this list for awhile, however our advisory board is listening and will continue to listen,” Van Dine said, adding “if there’s compelling evidence to suggest we do something different, then we’d have to give that some consideration.”

The new list of subsidized items can be found here.

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