On Nutrition North revamp, Ottawa plays the family-friendly card
Indigenous orgs will guide new harvesters support program, but details are scanty
The federal government is targeting what it calls “family-friendly” nutritious food and “northern staples” in its long-awaited revamp to the Nutrition North Canada program, which Labrador MP Yvonne Jones, the parliamentary secretary to Northern Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, announced today in Iqaluit.
The new measures include a high-level subsidy rate that increases existing subsidies on items like milk and infant formula by 25 per cent.
And its “family-friendly” food list includes ingredients used to make traditional foods like bannock, such as flour, lard, cooking oil, baking powder and salt, as well as butter, rice, pasta, diapers and dried beans.
“The measures combined are intended to have a greater impact on providing fresh, nutritious and perishable food that is more affordable in the North,” a Northern Affairs spokesperson said in a not-for-attribution briefing.
These and other actions, however, are “short-term,” the federal spokesperson said.
Few details on harvesters program
And the federal government is offering few details on its new harvesters support program, which was announced this past November with Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s fall economic update.
Under it, the federal government will spend $62.6 million over five years, starting April 1, 2019, to help country food harvesters.
It’s not clear who will decide how that money will be spent and who it will be spent on.
But the Northern Affairs spokesperson said Indigenous organizations will play a big role in managing that money.
To that end, an existing Indigenous working group will continue to look after the interests of First Nations and Métis communities that are covered by Nutrition North.
And a new body, an Inuit-Crown food security working group, will look after Inuit interests and “work towards a sustainable food system in Inuit Nunangat,” the government announced.
Critics slam program for lack of transparency
Today’s announcement, however, does not go far enough in ensuring transparency and ensuring that retailers pass the full benefit of the Nutrition North subsidy to their customers, some critics say.
After today, Ottawa is still not requiring that retailers like North West Co. disclose to the public the real freight rates that they negotiate with airlines, the critics say.
The CIRNAC spokesperson responded, however, by saying that all retailers must subject themselves to audits performed by third-party auditors.
In those audits, retailers must disclose all information to the auditor, including the prices they pay the airlines and their profit margins on food sales, the spokesperson said.
Also, Ottawa promises a communications program aimed at helping people better understand how the subsidies are applied.
But Tracey Galloway, a professor at the University of Toronto, said the measures announced today fail to make retailers accountable and that Nutrition North is a “public policy disaster.”
“The federal government chose instead to window-dress the problem with changes that ensure government money continues to flow into the coffers of a few retail corporations, rather than into the pockets of hard-hit, northern consumers,” Galloway said in an op-ed that will be published later in Nunatsiaq News.
The president of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Aluki Kotierk, also said “much more is needed to ensure full NNC subsidies are passed on to consumers.
“This includes working collaboratively with Inuit on the issue of food insecurity in the North,” she said.
Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq gave today’s announcement a mixed review.
“I was happy to hear that today’s federal announcement on the Program included a subsidy on more household necessities like diapers and infant food,” Savikataaq said in a statement.
“However, it is not clear that the proposed changes will provide a significant increase in the availability and accessibility of healthy, nutritious foods to Nunavut families,” he said.
Charlie Watt, the president of Makivik Corp., which owns First Air, a major food freight carrier in the eastern Arctic, said today’s changes are a “good start.”
But the former Liberal senator dumped on Stephen Harper’s Conservative government for introducing Nutrition North in 2011.
“The previous Food Mail program was better for Inuit. I don’t know why the Harper government decided to scrap that program when it wasn’t broken,” Watt said.
Also, Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said he welcomes the creation of an Inuit specific food security working group.
At the same time, he said he looks forward to a “necessary and foundational systemic changes to NNC so it evolves into an accountable, transparent social program that reduces food insecurity in Inuit communities.”
Bigger subsidies in all categories
The measures announced today include the following:
• A new, highest-level subsidy rate that targets nutritious items like milk, frozen fruit, frozen vegetables, infant formula and infant food. For these items, it’s 25 per cent greater than before.
• A new food list that focuses on northern staples and “family-friendly” items like flour, butter, lard, cooking oil, baking powder, salt, rice and pasta.
• The new family-friendly items also include diapers, dried beans, frozen pizza, frozen fruit, beans and macaroni.
• An increase in the Level 1 subsidy rate by at least 15 cents per kilogram, ranging up to $2 per kilo in some communities.
• In 76 eligible communities, per-kilo Level 2 subsidy rates will rise to at least $1 per kilo. In some First Nations communities in northern Ontario, subsidies had been as low as five cents per kilo. They’ll now get the minimum $1 per kilo.
• Nutrition North will review and adjust subsidy rates annually.
• Greater flexibility for northerners who make direct orders from suppliers, including more options for payment, such as e-transfers, credit cards, cheques and cash.
• Expanding the list of eligible southern suppliers to provide northerners with more choices.
• More help, including financial support, for smaller retailers and family-run businesses to meet the program’s reporting requirements.
• Restaurants not open to the public, such as those located within hotels, will no longer be eligible for subsidies.
• A communications effort to bring more information to communities, so they have a better understanding of how the program works and how its transparency measures work.
• New authority to allow immediate action when a community suddenly becomes dependent year-round on air freight, due to an emergency.
• A review of every community’s supply chain.